Woman Choosing a Product at a Supermarket | Woodruff

Can We Make Better Sense of Food Labels?

As consumers, we want plenty of choices when we shop for food. Choices let us tailor our purchases to our taste buds, dietary needs and pocketbooks.

We, as consumers, also want information about our food — what’s in it, where it comes from and how it’s produced.

And as marketers, we want to differentiate our food products to earn consumer preference.

But greater choice, more information and competitive advantage come with a price.

In today’s “just Google it” era, consumers are experiencing information overload, confusion, frustration and skepticism as they read food packages. Even a simple stroll through the aisles of your favorite grocery store can be stress-inducing as labels of familiar and unfamiliar food brands clamor for attention with their myriad claims — “heart healthy,” “all natural,” “gluten free,” “no antibiotics ever,” “organic,” “grass fed,” “GMO free” and many others. In fact, it’s fair to say that front-of-package food claims have some packages looking like NASCAR decal schemes.


If you’ve been involved with any kind of agricultural product branding, you know at least some of the information included on a package is mandated by federal and/or state regulations. The same holds true for food. Whether we’re talking about the country-of-origin label on a bunch of bananas, the “USDA Inspected” seal on a package of steaks or the nutrition facts label on the macaroni box — all are required by either the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These labels provide consumers with valuable information that they can’t verify themselves. Depending on where we as marketers are located in the farm-to-plate chain, part of our job may be to ensure that food and food packaging complies with the appropriate regulations, including proper food identification (naming), locations of the principal display and information panels, and more.

Beyond what’s required, information on the front of food packages is added at food companies’ discretion. These labels and statements — which provide information about what is and what isn’t inside — are mostly aimed at differentiating the product and getting consumers to buy. Some add value by communicating product benefits. Other package claims take advantage of the latest trends and eating philosophies. And some statements capitalize on consumer fears (non-GMO salt, anyone?) — even if those statements cause greater misinformation, confusion and fear. No wonder consumers feel overwhelmed, confused and even skeptical as they wade through a mountain of information and marketing claims as they make their food buying decisions!

Unfortunately, unless we’re are part of a product commercialization team, we may not hold much sway over the claims and statements made on product packaging.

So how can we alleviate the confusion and frustration felt by consumers as they shop for food?

We need to start by asking consumers.


It’s no secret that food labels confuse consumers. A recent survey of American consumers found that shoppers think food labels are increasingly vague, which in turn leads to trust issues:

  • 53 percent of surveyed consumers believe food labels are sometimes misleading
  • 44 percent are skeptical about health claims on product labels
  • 82 percent of consumers said they have felt tricked by nutrition labels

What do consumers want from food packaging and food companies? They want transparency, simplicity and relevancy.

The “clean eating” and “Whole30” approaches to food and nutrition have left an impression on the American consciousness. People are cognizant of the fact that they are what they eat and what they eat has a direct correlation to their health. In the previously mentioned survey, 78 percent of consumers said they are looking for products with simple ingredients, and by “simple” they mean a maximum of five ingredients (whose names they can actually pronounce).

Consumers’ desire for “simple” extends beyond what they read in the ingredients list. More than four out of five surveyed consumers (83 percent) are looking for products with simple packaging. More than three-quarters of Americans prefer brands that have simple, easy-to-read packaging over those whose packaging includes extraneous, potentially confusing, information.

Despite feeling confused by food labels, consumers read food labels and those labels influence their buying habits. Since midsummer 2017, the Michigan State University Food Literacy and Engagement Poll has surveyed U.S. residents about a wide array of food-related topics. A majority of consumers (60 percent) responding to the August 2018 poll said that food labels had an influential or very influential effect on their buying decisions. “Natural” was the term most looked for on food labels, followed by “low sodium,” “clean,” “organic” and the location of production. Less than 50 percent of surveyed consumers reported that they looked for “non-GMO/GMO-free,” “smart” or “gluten-free.”

Each of MSU’s polls includes one question to measure general consumer understanding. The August 2018 survey found that 49 percent of consumers agree with the statement “all food with deoxyribonucleic acid should be labeled,” even though all food contains genes. (Deoxyribonucleic acid is probably better known as DNA.) Another 43 percent of consumers neither agreed or disagreed with the statement.

Taking it a step further, the Food Demand Survey fielded by agricultural economists at Oklahoma State University for five years showed that more than 80 percent of consumers said they wanted mandatory labeling of foods that contain DNA. Interestingly (or perhaps sadly?), the question was asked several times in different ways with consistently similar results.

Which begs the question…

Have American consumers become so science illiterate that they don’t know that all organisms (yes, even those we use for food) have DNA in their cells?

Apparently, those of us in the scientific, agricultural and food communities have a tremendous amount of educational work to do to bridge the gap between consumers and agriculture, and to share clear, relevant and practical information about food and nutrition. It’s also time to take consumers’ confusion and knowledge gaps more seriously and rethink how we as agrimarketers educate consumers.


Reading and understanding labels are two different things. While one study found that 80 percent of consumers read labels, only about half to two-thirds of them could actually make sense of labels. Consumers say they want “better” food labels, and the latest round of changes to the nutrition facts panel seem to align with the interests voiced by today’s health-conscious consumers.

But do food labels actually change what consumers buy and eat? Does food labeling actually matter?

We don’t have answers to those questions yet. But we do know that consumers’ motives for reading food labels are complicated and reflect their involvement in and orientation to health, wellness and food culture. And although some consumers complain that there’s too much information and too much choice, others want choices in the brands they buy, the foods they eat and the information they review when making buying decisions.


When all is said and done, information matters. Transparency, simplicity and relevance matter too. There’s plenty of room for improvement when talking about food labels, and that includes eliminating claims and information that aren’t really relevant.

There’s also room for improving educational efforts directed to consumers, including how food is produced and the fundamentals of human nutrition. We may need to reframe who and what we are: Are we cattle producers? Wheat growers? Or are we food producers?

And we need to recognize there are basic tradeoffs in how information is conveyed to consumers. If presented simply, important nuances may be missed. If labels try to convey detailed information, then consumers may be confused. Labels should contribute to consumer understanding and alleviate consumer angst about food. That’s something that we can influence if we choose to take action within our individual companies.