by Bobbi Leal, UMN Law Student, MJLST Articles Editor
A recent study, published in Agricultural Economics, found that the average body mass index for consumers that read nutrition labels is lower than those that do not read the labels. This finding implies that understanding and utilizing food and nutrition labels provides consumers with the information needed to make informed decisions about what they eat. However, a recent article by J.C. Horvath published in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, “How Can Better Food Labels Contribute to True Choice?” makes evident that food labeling has a long way to go before it truly gives consumers the information necessary to make informed decisions.
Food label regulations, outlined by the Food and Drug Administration, have a number of flaws. The FDA has declined to define strict standards for use of the food label “all-natural,” claiming that the term is too nebulous to be strictly defined and standardized across the entire food industry. Undoubtedly, consumers assume that a food labeled as “all-natural” has not been chemically processed or structurally altered from its natural state. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The FDA has a vague policy which defines the term “natural,” to mean “nothing artificial or synthetic…is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there.” According to the Wall Street Journal, some ingredients that have been labeled as “all-natural” include high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified plants, and sodium benzoate.
Similarly, the approved use of certain terms, such as “artificial flavor,” “natural flavor,” and “artificial coloring” often hide significant details about the nature of the food. These three phrases can stand in for over 3900 food additives that come from a wide range of sources, giving the consumer no real notice of the substance or origin of the “flavor” or “coloring.” For example, beef tallow, gelatin, and lard can all be covered by these three phrases. Even the requirements for listing allergens is incomplete, as the FDA only requires that eight of the known allergic-reaction-inducing ingredients be explicitly listed: milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.
This recent study concerning the use of nutrition labels makes clear that when consumers read and understand food labels, they can make better choices for their health. In order for this to occur, however, it is imperative that the food labels which consumers rely upon are transparent and accurate. Food label regulations have not yet accomplished this objective.