New site gives you the scoop on food labels
By Bryanna Allen
STAFF WRITER | July 13,2015
SOUTH ROYALTON — People come in contact with food labels every time they pour a bowl of cereal or reach inside a box for a granola bar. Yet not everyone knows what those labels explaining their fuel actually mean.
Enter the new website launched by Vermont Law School.
“Labels Unwrapped” is an interactive website that explores what food labeling really means. It differentiates between and breaks down labels and marketing techniques that consumers stumble across on a daily basis.
“When we were trying to think of a website to develop, we wanted something that uncovered what nutrition labeling and policies actually mean to the average person,” said Laurie Beyranevand, associate professor of agriculture at VLS and the brains behind Labels Unwrapped.
“It can be really tricky to tackle the legal perspective when it comes to this topic,” she said.
The website encourages consumers to educate themselves on their food, but in an easy, non-intimidating way. And it covers a wide range of food categories, including meats, organic and conventional packaged foods.
“(The website) takes terms that are always used, but digs deeper and explains the hidden meaning in plain language that everyone can understand,” said Falko Schilling, consumer protection advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
It also offers interactive images and quizzes to test the consumer’s understanding of the information.
For instance, the graphic of a box of organic blueberry granola displays the phrases “Non-GMO” and “Zero Trans Fats.” Readers of the Labels Unwrapped site can click on these phrases to get a simple explanation about the meaning, and information about whether or not that item is worth buying.
“A lot of manufacturers throw these labels on when they don’t necessarily mean a lot, and then they hike up the prices because they seem like appealing features,” Beyranevand said. “So this website will help people spend money more wisely, but also understand what they’re putting in their bodies.”
She said there is a major difference between foods labeled “organic” and foods labeled “natural.”
“Basically, most of the time, saying something is ‘natural’ doesn’t mean anything,” she said.
Schilling, who has done a lot of research on GMOs and organic products, agreed.
“Almost every product can be labeled that it’s ‘natural,’” he said. “Because that officially means that some part of that food is derived from the original ingredient.”
For example, something can be labeled ‘natural maple flavor’ without having actual maple syrup in it simply because some small component of it one came from the original source.
Yet with meat, Schilling says, the label ‘natural’ actually has more standing. It means that the animal was raised without antibiotics or other hormones.
“You just have to figure out what it all means,” he said.
Product approval is another area of fogginess. The difference between something FDA certified versus USDA certified is something that Beyranevand said many people pay little attention to — and if they do, they tend to struggle with understanding the complexities.
She explained that labels on food items that are USDA regulated generally require pre-approval from a third party to ensure the provided information is accurate and truthful, while labels on FDA regulated foods don’t always require that pre-approval.
That leaves room for misunderstandings and misguided nutrition or production information.
“It’s really up to the individual consumer to decide what kinds of foods they want to eat, but the goal is to get people educated and aware of those options,” she said.
Beyranevand said she hopes that eventually, the website can be an information source for producers looking to collect information on the interests of consumers — what is important to them when it comes to purchasing food.
“The overall takeaway of this website is that it’s incredibly useful for people to be able to dig deeper into understanding their food,” Schilling said. “And then be able to make the right choices.”