Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) recently launched the Labels Unwrapped website to help consumers in the United States better understand labels on food packaging.
The website helps readers learn about nutrient content claims, government and third-party regulation and certification, and expiry dates. In the Explore Labels section, users can practice reading food labels, a skill they can apply in the grocery store. By hovering their cursor over the interactive labels, they can reveal more information about the explanations behind various marketing claims.
Another section, Labels 101, provides information on food label regulations. Director of CAFS and professor of law Laurie Beyranevand says that this section may be useful for small or medium-sized food producers and food law students, who are looking for a breakdown of the industry’s over-complex laws and regulations.
Government agencies including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provide resources about food labels, but Beyranevand says these are often intended for producers. And because the pages contain technical jargon, consumers may not always understand what they read. Beyranevand hopes that this new website can help make information more accessible and increase label literacy.
A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior finds that 89 percent of respondents believed they understood the meaning of best by labels, but just 24 percent correctly identified the specific meaning. Additionally, only 22 percent of respondents were aware that terms including “best if used by” and “best by” are not federally regulated on all foods.
Dr. Roni Neff, co-author of the study and a professor at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for a Livable Future says that consumers want more information about their food. “I think there are real trust issues with our food supply. Having access to information and having clarification of what those things mean is really important,” Neff tells Food Tank.
Beyranevand tells Food Tank that the inspiration for the website came from her students in 2015. During a unit on food labels, her law school class expressed surprise at the complexity of food labeling laws.
“Almost every year, a student will say how surprised they are that it took a law school class to understand the meaning of common statements they see all the time on food labels,” Beyranevand tells Food Tank. “They’re also surprised to find that some labels are regulated or overseen in some way by the government, and others aren’t. We thought, why not create a website to make that information accessible to anyone who is interested?”
While Labels Unwrapped is intended to fill an important gap, Beyranevand tells Food Tank that policy also has an important role to play. She argues that policymakers and regulators must prioritize accessibility and comprehensibility when developing laws around food labels. A new bill, the Food Labeling Modernization Act, aims to do just this.
The Act proposes significant changes to food labels such as requiring uniform definitions of marketing terms such as natural, which has no definition. According to Beyranevand and Neff, standardization would make food label education much more effective and accurate.
“When [labels are] not universal, we can’t go out and do education and tell consumers this is what that label means…It’s impossible to get rid of the confusion if we don’t have some kind of consistent federal standard,” Neff tells Food Tank.
Neff also explains that there is a need for consistency among date labels on food. Such changes would help consumers understand when food is simply no longer at its peak quality versus when it is no longer safe to consume. According to research from ReFED, a nonprofit organization working to end food waste, standardizing date labels is one of the most cost-effective solutions for reducing food waste nationally.
Both Beyranevard and Neff also say that food label education must start early and become uniform. Beyranevard explains that the U.S. does not have mandatory food and nutrition programs in schools and this, too, must change. Beyranevard tells Food Tank, “Education must coexist with regulation.”