There has been a proliferation of certification labels in recent years, from organic and Fairtrade, to cage-free and outdoor bread. However, according to a new study, funded by the University of Delaware, this can “stigmatise” otherwise healthy foods, without any scientific basis.
The research looked at how food labels that identify production processes positively and negatively influenced consumer behaviour. Published in the journal Applied Economics Perspectives and Policy, the study reviewed over 90 academic studies on consumer response to process labels.
The researchers found that while these labels satisfy consumer demand for quality assurances and can create value for both consumers and producers, misinterpretation is common and can prompt consumers to form negative assessments of food produced by conventional processes, even when there is no scientific evidence those foods cause harm.
Lead author Kent Messer, Unidel Howard Cosgrove career development chair for the environment, said that this can have particularly problematic consequences for poorer consumers.
"That has me worried about the poor and those who are food insecure," said Messer, who is also director of the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. "Because now you're trying to make everything a high-end food choice and frankly, we just want to have healthy food choices, we don't need to have extra labels that scare away people."
Process labels focus on the production of a food but largely ignore outcomes of the process such as taste or healthiness.
Confusion and misinformation
The proliferation of different process labels can result in consumer confusion. For example, products claiming to be “natural” can be mistaken with products that are GMO-free or organic, Messer argued.
Additionally, a 'halo effect' can cause consumers to consider a product to have other, unrelated beneficial attributes. "If you show consumers a chocolate bar that is labelled as 'Fairtrade', some will tell you that it has lower calories," Messer said. "But the label is not about calories. Consumers do this frequently with the 'organic' label as they think it is healthy for the consumer. Organic practices may be healthier for the farm workers or the environment, but for the actual consumer, there's very little evidence behind that. You're getting lots of mixed, wrong messages out there."
When positive turns negative
Process labelling can also lead a label to sound like it has a positive impact – when really the impact is negative, the study suggested.
A claim such as 'low food miles' can be misleading. "Sometimes, where food is grown doesn't mean that it's actually the best for climate change," said Messer. "If you just count miles and not true energy use, you can get people paying more money for something that's actually going the opposite of what they wanted which is to get a lower carbon footprint.”
Food labelling can also promote fear about production processes when such concerns are not based on scientific evidence.
"When you start labeling everything as 'free of this' such as 'gluten-free water,' you can end up listing stuff that could never have been present in the food in the first place," Messer said. "These 'free of' labels can cause unnecessary fear and cast the conventionally produced food in a harsh, negative light."
Messer also said that there is evidence that food companies are getting worried about investing in science and technology.
Call for policy change
According to Messer, policy changes could help consumers better understand their choices. The study’s authors argue governments should not impose bans on process labels but rather encourage labels that help document how the processes affect important quality traits, such as calorie count.
"Relying on process labels alone, on the other hand, is a laissez-faire approach that inevitably surrenders the educational component of labelling to mass media, the colourful array of opinion providers, and even food retailers, who may not always be honest brokers of information," the researchers wrote.
The positive impact of process labels
The researchers did acknowledge that process labels serve an important purpose: they allow consumers to align their purchasing decisions with their values.
"The good part is that process labels can help bridge the trust between the producer and the consumer because it gives the consumer more insight into the market," said Messer. "New products can be introduced this way, niche markets can be created, and consumers, in many cases, are willing to pay more for these products. It's good for industry, consumers are getting what they want, and new players get to find ways of getting a higher price."