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Could the Continuing Food Label PR Wars Lead to Healthier Products?

When we hear the words “deceptive marketing”, we generally think of campaigns that promote the blatantly false or grossly exaggerated “benefits” of a product (i.e. the butt-sculpting superpower of Sketchers Shape Ups or the death-cheating health claims of POM juice). In cases like these, the offending parties are held accountable by the FTC for intentionally misleading consumers. The public doesn’t like being lied to, and we rely on governing bodies and uniform regulations to protect us.

But what about the marketing we encounter every time we visit a grocery store? In our increasingly health-conscious society, more and more people are checking labels to make sure they are feeding their families the most nutritious, least harmful foods possible. But what many don’t realize is that labels reading “all natural” or “farm fresh” don’t necessarily mean what people think they mean; in fact, due to a lack of regulation, many such buzz words mean virtually nothing at all.

“’Natural’ is probably the most egregious term on the market…and our polling shows that consumers still think it has more meaning than organic,” says Dr. Urvashi Rangan of Consumers Union, which runs a website dedicated to spreading awareness about misleading food labeling.

“They exploit the use of labeling to sell a product, and that doesn’t serve the consumer or the marketplace. We think labels should be meaningful. They should be verified. They should be consistent in meaning. They should be transparent, and they should be independent to the degree they can be.”

Amen! But such regulation is proving difficult to come by. Last fall California voted down a bill that would have required all foods containing genetically modified organisms to be labeled as such (about 80 percent of processed foods in the US contain some sort of GMO ingredients, but they’re still allowed to boast labels like “all natural,””naturally derived,” “naturally flavored,” etc.). Though the bill had a number of passionate backers and related pro-labeling campaigns, the big agricultural and chemical companies that create these products were equally invested in the outcome of the vote, and they launched a $46 million PR effort that blitzed radio waves and flooded mailboxes with negative advertising.

In the absence of standardized government regulation of food labels, frustrated consumers are increasingly taking matters into their own hands in a number of ways. Several organizations and projects aimed at self-regulation (like the Non-GMO Project) are doing their best to produce healthful, honest food with meaningful labeling. Meanwhile, grassroots efforts like the Label it Yourself campaign go so far as to urge shoppers to slap their own GMO labels on offending food products.

It seems the more consumers become aware of misleading labels, the more outraged they are. Many well-loved products have seen backlashes of late – everything from Kashi to Cheerios has had to deal with related PR problems. So, until industry-wide regulations are passed, what’s the solution from a PR perspective? No company wants to appear dishonest, but they also don’t want to advertise their questionable ingredients when their competitors are getting away with misleading packaging.

Perhaps we can look at it this way: often, once a company’s shady labeling habits have been outed, that company is shamed into making changes in the food it produces rather than just refreshing the packaging (if it’s actually natural, then there’s nothing to hide!). So is it too much to hope that, in the long run, public demand for transparent labeling could actually result in healthier food across the board? We can dream, no?

In the meantime, here is a useful (if rather unsettling) breakdown of which food labels you can trust — and which amount to little more than meaningless marketing hype.

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