The Magic of Food Labeling

grocery storeShop in a grocery store, and most of what you see has been processed to one degree or another.

Yes, strictly speaking, even things like cleaning, sorting, and bagging organic fruit or veg count as processing.

In essence, “processing” is merely about turning food in its natural form into a product for consumption. Such products run the gamut from minimally- to hyper-processed, with foods tending to lose more of their nutritional value the more processed they are.

Regardless of the degree of processing, something funny happens when food companies slap labels onto their products: Consumer perceptions can change.

According to a recent survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a front group for the food and beverage industries, many consumers base their opinions of what they think is “processed” only if the item seems like it was altered in some way.

And if you label it as “organic,” the product may seem even less processed.

Only three out of fourteen carrot-based products listed were considered “processed” by over half of respondents…Interestingly, consumers were only half as likely to categorize organic bagged baby carrots (7%) as processed compared to conventional bagged baby carrots (14%).

A recent study in Appetite likewise found that the “organic” label can indeed lead consumers to attribute qualities to a processed food quality that may or may not actually be true.

Overall, processed organic (vs. conventional) foods were perceived as tastier, more healthful (Study 1) or equally healthful (Study 2), but also as more caloric.

“Uncovering the specific conditions in which food claims bias consumer’s perceptions and behavior,” note the authors, “may have important implications for marketing, health and public-policy related fields.”

Of course, we have good reasons for favoring organics. As a study in Procedia Economics and Finance noted,

the reasons advocated by the consumers for buying organic food products are varied and primarily the motivations behind their decision to purchase include concerns for environment, health concern and lifestyle, food product quality and their subjective norms. Consumer behaviour involves the psychological processes that consumers go through in recognizing needs, finding ways to solve these needs; collect and interpret information; make plans and implement these plans, making purchase decisions and post-purchase behaviour.

But our willingness to buy and our purchases making a difference hangs on another important thing: trust. This was demonstrated nicely by a 2015 Thai study in the Journal of Business Ethics. Through two focus groups and 10 interviews, as well as a related intercept study, its authors found that lack of trust in the labeling and control procedures of organic food in Thailand have resulted in consumers being much less likely to buy organic.

Mistrust in the control system and in the authenticity of food sold as organic has a significant negative impact on self-reported buying behavior. Implications for policy and future research are discussed.

Next week, we’ll look further at the issue of organics labeling and how you can make sure you’re getting the quality you pay for.