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Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.
(Photo: STILLFX/Shutterstock)

(Photo: STILLFX/Shutterstock)

We want labels on our food products and we should. Labels are ostensibly intended to clarify and, in an age when food companies are doing strange things to their products, it has never been more important to have a steady stream of clarification. Some critics even go so far as to say we have a basic human right to know—explicitly stated on a label—what’s in our food. It generally seems safe to say that the more accurate information we have about our food, the better.

This idea currently works—up to a point. I’m sitting here looking at a bag of Basmati rice. The ingredient list is simple enough: “Basmati rice.” The nutritional information is straightforward: lots of carbs, protein, iron, and fiber, and no fat or cholesterol. The front of the bag tells me the rice is “Carolina Basmati.” Geography matters, so it’s nice to know that the rice came from somewhere on the East Coast between Georgia and Virginia. The package also notes that the rice is “naturally fragrant,” a telling addition aiming to assure jaded consumers that the unique aroma of Basmati is, as another word on the label offers, “authentic,” rather than the result of yet another industry trick. In addition to the fact that the bag weighs two pounds and that a cup of dry rice yields four servings, this is the extent of the “easy-to-digest” information that comes with my bag. At this point, I’m a well-informed cook.

But if I wanted to become confused all I’d have to do is continue reading. A little stamp on the back of the bag says “origin Pakistan,” leading me to wonder what happened in Carolina and what happened in Pakistan. Does “Carolina Basmati” mean that Carolina is importing my rice while Pakistan is growing it? And if so, what about food miles? What’s the distance from Pakistan to Carolina and by what mode of transport did the rice travel (by boat or airplane)? What does it mean, as the bag further explains, that the rice was “packed for: Riviana,” a distributor of specialty rice products based out of Houston, Texas? Did the rice skip Carolina and go directly from Jinnah International Airport to George Bush Intercontinental?

Roughly one out of five consumers thought “local” meant non-GMO, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and having a longer shelf life.

And now that we’re on the topic of Pakistan, what kind of growing methods do they use there? Are farmers using their own seed or are they beholden to a rapacious international seed company? What kinds of chemicals—natural or otherwise—are permitted in Pakistani agriculture? What’s the water situation like? This Basmati rice—with which I made a fluffy pilaf last night—is some of the finest I’ve used. But the bag it came in, for all of the immediate information it provides, leaves me with more questions than answers.

Even the seemingly most basic labels that carry the most weight with consumers—organic and local—can sow considerable confusion. A recent study (PDF) published in the International Food and Agribusiness Management Review confirms a wide range of perceptions and misperceptions over what these terms mean for concerned consumers. Almost a quarter of all consumers surveyed erroneously conflated local and organic, thinking them to be more or less the same thing. Roughly one out of five consumers thought “local” meant non-GMO, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and having a longer shelf life. Closer to 30 percent believed the local label meant the food was healthier, and 44 percent believed the food tasted better. Of course, it is true in some cases that local means all of these things. But it’s just as likely untrue. The local label itself makes no absolute claims about any of these factors. The only thing local means—the only honest point made by the label—is that there were “decreased miles to transport product.” Somehow, 33 percent of consumers weren’t aware of this.

The organic label, despite established and readily available USDA standards, is equally confusing to many consumers. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed believed that no natural pesticides are used to grow organic food. Forty percent associated the organic label with more nutritious food, and nearly as many thought organic implied better-tasting produce. Nearly 40 percent did not know that natural fertilizer can be used in organic agriculture.

Again, these answers reflect considerable confusion vis-à-vis the reality of organic—not to mention agriculture in general. And none of it is new. Back in 2005, another study on consumer perceptions found that 40 percent of those surveyed linked the organic label with “chemical free,” an association that is flatly incorrect. What does become clear in reading these studies is that the organic label, much like the local label, is less a marker of concrete information than a term upon which consumers are quick to project a set of desired images.

Food labels, even in an honest attempt to clarify, are necessarily complicated because food, despite our wish otherwise, is necessarily complicated. The terminology upon which we now depend is, for reasons only hinted at here, inadequate. Organic can mean a million things just as local can mean a million miles. It would be nice if we could just go in the opposite direction and insist that the more information we have the better. But if that were true for my Basmati label, it could have noted that the reason my kitchen smelled so lovely when I was cooking my pilaf was because of a chemical in the rice called 2-actyl-1-pyrroline, the inclusion of which might scare away the chemically illiterate—which is most of us. (Plus, as Michael Pollan says, “if you can’t say it, don’t eat it.”)

What we need in terms of labeling is something that rarely happens in the food world: a compromise. What I would like to know about any whole food that I buy is this: What country was it grown in? Were workers paid a living wage? What pesticides were applied and how often? What was the rate of fertilizer run-off? How far was the farm from a petrochemical or coal-fired power plant? What was the yield per acre? And how biologically diverse was the farm? I’d forgo any other labels for this kind of data. But I’m not holding my breath.