'Peel Back the Label' Tackles Fear-Based Marketing on Food Products

Do foods that are never available in a genetically modified form need to be labeled as non-GMO, or is that label just playing into our fears?. (Photo: Vanatchanan/Shutterstock)

The recently launched Peel Back The Label campaign aims to tackle what it refers to as deceptive or fear-based marketing. What type of marketing is this? I'll give you an example.

There's a can of tomato puree in my pantry made from "tomato puree (water, tomato paste) and naturally derived citric acid." The back of the can contains many symbols and words meant to catch the eye of consumers like me who are concerned about what is in their food. The symbols and/or words include those for "non-bpa liner," "non-GMO ingredients" (the product is Non-GMO Project Verified), "all-natural," "sustainably produced," "certified kosher," "vegan," "no msg," "gluten free" and "Made in the USA."

Some of these symbols are helpful, giving me information I wouldn't know without them. The "non-bpa liner" tells me that the can is not lined in bisphenol-A, a chemical frequently found in the linings of cans that has been linked to many health issues including obesity, asthma, sexual dysfunction, breast cancer and even aggression in little girls. The "non-GMO ingredients" symbol lets me know none of the ingredients come from genetically modified sources. If kosher was a concern for me, that symbol would be helpful, too.

Some of the other symbols aren't helpful because they aren't necessary. Of course this product is gluten free; there is no gluten in tomatoes, water or citric acid. The same goes with vegan — there's never any animal products in those ingredients, not is there any MSG. "All natural" and "sustainably produced" mean very little. There are no strict government regulations for them.

And "Made in the USA"? That is information I wouldn't have known without the symbol, but I'm not sure what that means. Does it mean the tomatoes might have come from elsewhere but were processed in the USA, or do the tomatoes have to come from the U.S.? What about the citric acid?

Deceptive labels and marketing

Do you need the non-GMO label to know if your popcorn is made from GMO corn?. (Photo: Oxana Denezhkina/Shutterstock)

Many of the symbols on the back of that can are examples of what the Peel Back The Label campaign refers to as "deceptive food labeling."

It’s the product proclaiming that it is “GMO-free”, when the reality is that NO product within the category contains GMOs in the first place. It’s the product proclaiming “no high fructose corn syrup”, when high fructose corn syrup won’t be found in that product or any other like it – label or not.

I agree that labeling a product non-GMO or gluten-free when it never would contain those things is deceptive. The label implies that a competing product sitting next to it on the shelf may contain those ingredients that people are wary of. This is "fear-based marketing." Marketers are hoping that a lack of consumer knowledge along with fears of certain ingredients — some warranted, some perhaps exaggerated — will make a shopper grab their product instead of the competitor's product.

Take popcorn for instance. Plain popcorn kernels come from corn that is never genetically modified. There are no GMO popcorn kernels on the market. Corn also is not a source of gluten ,so plain popcorn kernels cannot contain gluten. Yet, there are some brands of popcorn that have the non-GMO seal and are labeled gluten free. The popcorn right next to it on the shelf is also free of both GMOs and gluten, but without the labels, consumers may not realize it. So consumers grab the popcorn labeled non-GMO and gluten free, just to be safe.

Consumers need accurate, necessary information, not extraneous information that causes confusion.

Informative labels and marketing

A pitcher of milk
While buttermilk won't moisturize by itself, it will help any moisturizer you do use to absorb better into skin. (Photo: images72/Shutterstock)

Peel Back The Label is a "campaign of America's Dairy Farmers," according to the website. The site makes it no secret that while it does address the unnecessary labeling of foods like the popcorn mentioned above, it's real goal is to stop the fear-mongering about GMOs.

Nowhere is this fear-based labeling more rampant than with GMOs. Companies like TruMoo milk, which says that GMOs are safe on its website, while at the same time touting the absence of GMOs in its chocolate milk through on-product labels and fear-based commercials targeting parents and children. Or like Hunt’s canned tomatoes and Florida’s Natural orange juice, both of which prominently feature GMO-free labels, despite the fact that there are no GMO tomatoes or oranges on the market.

It seems the campaign is trying to confuse consumers in a way similar to what it accuses marketers of doing. Yes, in its pure form, milk has no GMOs. When a milk is Non-GMO Project Verified, it's verified on the feed the cows are given and the amount of GMOs that have gotten into the milk through what the cows eat.

This is where I think things can get a bit tricky, as most discussions about GMOs do. Many studies have found that the GMOs in feed do not find their way into milk, but at least one study did find that "GM DNA present in animal feed has been detected in the milk and meat that people eat." With so much unknown about GMOs and the effect they have on humans, consumers want GMO information about their food. A non-GMO label on milk provides that information, and I don't see that as fear mongering.

However, if TruMoo is saying GMOs are safe but also labeling non-GMO, then they probably are doing it for marketing purposes. Still, the label is giving consumers information they wouldn't know unless it was there.

The Hunt's canned tomatoes contain citric acid as a preservative, and that citric acid can contain GMOs. That non-GMO label is warranted.

The orange juice? According to Florida Natural's website, the only ingredient in their 100 percent orange juice is "pasteurized orange juice," so it seems that non-GMO label is nothing more than marketing hoping to get uninformed consumers to buy their juice instead of the non-labeled juice next to it.

But by talking about the ingredients in milk and tomatoes as inherently non-GMO without acknowledging that GMOs can be introduced during creation or production, this campaign is being as deceptive as the marketers it rails against. Yes, there are no commercial tomatoes with GMOs in them, but that can of Hunt's contains something more than tomatoes. Yes, milk cannot contain GMOs if the cows it came from never came in contact with any form of GMOs. But once GMO feed is introduced, that may change.

I like the idea behind The Peel Back the Label campaign. Consumers should know what labels mean and when they are being given necessary information or when they are simply preying on people's fears. I just don't agree that all the labels the campaign claims are simply fear-based are actually that. Some of them give necessary information to consumers who have a right to know what's in their food.