What’s in a label?

Posted 3/14/23

Did you know that large supermarkets and food companies pay a lot of money to know exactly the best way to market their products to you, the consumer? 

From the color of the packaging to the …

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What’s in a label?


Did you know that large supermarkets and food companies pay a lot of money to know exactly the best way to market their products to you, the consumer? 

From the color of the packaging to the layout and messaging, to where on the shelf it’s located, all to reach their target demographic—these companies know what you want and what you’re going to buy, even before you walk into the grocery store. Seems a bit strong of an approach, but you can have the best product in the world—however, unless it’s marketed correctly, it won’t sell. 

When I think of agriculture and its location in this algorithm, I think of a lot of labeling claims that are used to entice or educate buyers about their products. 

But do all consumers know exactly what those claims mean, or do they create their own definitions as they quickly run through the store?

I think specifically of label claims like “hormone-free,” “all-natural,” “sustainably raised,” “organic,” “grass-fed,” and many others.

While I could go on all day breaking down each of these labels, I’ll just focus on a few key points you should know about when learning to understand these labels. 

The first is that some of these label claims have no national definition that sets a standard to which producers can be held accountable. For example, there has been no national standard for the term “all-natural” for many years. 

According to a recent article by the USDA, the agency has defined “all-natural” as follows: Using “natural” on a food label means that it is a product containing no artificial ingredients or added color, and is only minimally processed. “Minimal processing” means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. 

The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural, such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed.” This is much better than it has been in the past; however, it still doesn’t address the management practices that these animals may be raised under, conditions that some might argue are not natural. 

Secondly, be aware of the definition of certified products vs. non-certified products. For example, if you’re purchasing grass-fed meat, there is a national certification program (American Grassfed Association) that has a strict standard for its producers as they raise the animals they are selling. Producers can use no grain at any point in the animal’s life, use no implants or antibiotics, and must use very specific dewormers that don’t have an environmental impact on beneficial organisms. The farmers who are certified are also inspected for compliance approximately every 15 months. 

These labels have very clear definitions as to how the animals in the program are raised. However, some other products might have “grass-fed” on the label, but if they aren’t certified, it means their definition of grass-fed is very vague. It could potentially mean the animals raised were indeed grass-fed their entire lives, or it could mean that any animal under that label was given grass at one point in their life (almost 100 percent of all ruminant species would fall under this vague definition). 

The last thought I’ll let you ponder in this month’s Farmer’s Take is that some claims or buzzwords come about originally as a positive term used in the industry, but then can sometimes acquire a negative connotation once it’s used for marketing. 

For example, the term “hormone-free” was altered from the term “no added hormones.” I cringe when I hear this term used, because every single product out there contains a natural level of hormones. We all need to consume or create certain levels of hormones for our bodies to function optimally, and in recent years—because of misinformation about this process—there’s a pretty heavy negative connotation with anything perceived to have hormones in it. 

If you’re ever unsure, there are plenty of scholarly resources out there to help educate consumers on these labels, but the greatest resource is, of course, to speak to local producers about exactly what their management practices are.

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