Food Label Lingo

Reading food labels

All food products have five standard components regulated by the FDA.

Each time you enter a supermarket, you are faced with nearly 40,000 products to choose from[1]. Each product brightly colored, strategically placed and wordsmithed perfectly to convince you not to leave the store without it. So, how as consumers can we decipher all the information food packages provide and use it to make better purchasing decisions for our families? We have to learn the food label lingo. First, it is important to recognize that all food products have five standard components regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

  1. Product Identity (product name that accurately describes the package contents)
  2. Net Content (product quantity or weight)
  3. Nutrition facts
  4. Ingredients/ allergen statement
  5. Signature Line (including company name and address of the manufacturer or distributor)

But most packages contain a slew of additional information that highlights anything from farm practices, to health benefits, to social and economic practices. There are three possible origins of food label claims and statements, 1) government agencies like the USDA and FDA; 2) third-party organizations like American Grassfed®, Non-GMO Project Verified, Fair Trade Certified, and Certified Angus Beef®; and 3) food manufacturers or producers.

Government issued labels were created to: ensure fair competition among producers, provide consumers with basic product information, and most importantly to reduce health and safety risks[2]. Government labels always have the agency from which the standards originate listed, for example USDA organic or Dolphin Safe, United States Department of Commerce. Government standards and record of companies holding their certifications can be accessed online or by contacting the respective agency.Dolphin Safe Seal

Third-party labels were created to enhance the intelligibility and credibility of certain food attributes through the use of standards, verification, certification, and enforcement[2]. Each organization is responsible for determining their own set of standards that producers must follow to use their trademarked seal. Third-party labels can vary from very strict standards that require yearly audits to very loose standards that are more like a subscription with no verification process. I encourage consumers to do additional research on labels they think align with their values to ensure they match.

Lastly, producers and manufacturers create a number of food label claims and statements to entice consumers. A few of the more current statements include: natural, 100% pure, all, made with real fruit, made with whole grains, lightly-sweetened, a good source of fiber, local, and strengthens your immune system[3]. Be wary of these statements because they are unregulated and defined entirely by the manufacturer.

To learn more, visit my website Understanding Food Labels. Here you will find hundreds of food labels, videos and educational resources that can be used in Extension program efforts.


[1] Food Marketing Institute. (2017, November 13). Supermarket Facts. Retrieved 2017, from

[2] Golan, E., Kuchler, F., & Mitchell, L. (2000). Economics of Food Labeling. Washington: Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from

[3] Silverglade, B., & Heller, I. R. (2010). Food Labeling Chaos. Washington, DC: Center for Science in the Public Interest. Retrieved from

Carol HamiltonCarol Hamilton is an Extension Educator (Delaware County).

OSUE CD: In the beginning…

Learn more about Memories and Milestones of OSU Extension 1905-2013. If you are interested in obtaining a copy of the book, please contact us.

In 1955, OSU Extension organized a Rural Development Committee to establish a Rural Development Extension Program. The goal: to more effectively address needs of 25 economically depressed counties in southeast Ohio.  The effort was funded by USDA and by 1957, pilot projects were established in Monroe and Guernsey Counties. In these two counties, the County Extension Agricultural Agent worked with the County Rural Development committee to facilitate the development of a comprehensive economic development strategy over a two-year period.

To see real-life application of “The Adoption Process,” OSU Rural Sociology Professor Dr. Everett Rogers took his class to Monroe County to learn from Howard Phillips, the Rural Development Agent based there. As a member of this class, I was so impressed that I told Dr. Rogers I’d like to pursue a Master’s Degree in Rural Sociology specializing in Community Development. I was so excited that I told him I wanted him to be my advisor. Rogers replied that he would be glad to be my advisor if I would agree to be the “guinea pig” to help him develop a curriculum in Community Development since none yet existed in the Rural Sociology program. Of course, I eagerly agreed!

The pilot projects in Guernsey and Monroe Counties demonstrated the effectiveness of this CD approach. Consequently, in 1960, twenty-five economically depressed southeastern Ohio counties were grouped into four areas, each of which were served by an Area Extension Rural Development Agent. Each agent was tasked with assisting community leaders in the same manner as in the pilot projects. These first Area Extension Rural Development Agents included Howard Phillips, William Shaw, Ralph Moore and Norman Burkett. Their comprehensive economic development strategies were completed by the summer of 1962. When Norman Burkett left Extension, I eagerly filled his position upon obtaining my degree at the August commencement – the first OSU Rural Sociology MS degree with a CD specialization.

State program leadership was provided by OSU Rural Sociology Professor Dr. Everett Rogers; the first State Leader, Community Development, from 1962 to 1964. Interestingly, in 1963, one of the first two CD agents (Howard Phillips) became the first Assistant Director for Community Development. A post he held into 1966.

There was much CD work to be done and these early Area Extension Agents were very much engaged. For example, Ralph Moore worked with a group of community leaders to develop proposed strip-mine regulations including eliminating high walls (20 to 100 feet). William Shaw organized an Absentee Landowners Education Program and conducted it in the area of the absentee landowners’ primary residence (i.e. Cleveland-Akron-Canton); an annual offering that went on for years. Howard Phillips organized a southeastern Ohio Vacation Farms Association; an ideal tourism program. And I worked to extend water lines to service over 2000 families in sections of Highland, Adams and Brown Counties. That membership sign-up campaign resulted in over 200 miles of water lines!

The early success of this Area Extension approach very much impressed then-Director, Roy Kottman!

Raymond SchindlerRaymond Schindler is an Associate Professor Emeritus and an OSU alum.

“Ice Ice Baby”

In light of the recent stretch of below average temperatures, I thought it might be of interest to share some facts about ice on the Great Lakes. The NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, or GLERL, has been studying ice coverage on the Great Lakes for over 30 years. Their data help us to understand ice’s role in water level changes, water temperature, and even plankton blooms in Lake Erie. Why should we care so much about ice? Read on to find out more about ice and its impacts.

Ice Generation

Lake Erie’s long term average ice concentration compared to current (2017-2018 winter) ice production.

During winter months, lakes lose energy to the atmosphere as the water near the surface cools. The cold, dense water sinks to the bottom of the lake while warmer water rises, and this cycle continues until the surface water reaches 32 degrees. Freezing begins and then extends down into the lake as the ice thickens. On average, it takes until early February for Lake Erie to achieve over 60% ice coverage. The recent stretch of cold temperatures across the Great Lakes has made for some record-breaking ice generation – Lake Erie went from 1.5% coverage on December 24 to over 85% coverage on January 8. For comparison, last year in early January, Lake Erie had only 7.6% ice coverage.

Ice and Lake Effect Snow

More ice on Lake Erie generally means less lake effect snow. When Lake Erie freezes over, less water is readily available to be drawn up from the lake to the air above. The ice acts like a cap, preventing moisture from evaporating and/or condensing and therefore creating lake effect snow. While those in the “snow belt” may appreciate the decrease in snowfall once Lake Erie starts freezing over, this usually comes at a price – colder weather!

Ice and Lake Levels

Increased ice coverage means more protection from evaporation in the winter and theoretically higher water levels – but the connection between ice coverage and water levels is not that simple. While the amount of available open water in the winter for evaporation plays a role, data have shown that evaporation peaks in the fall, before ice cover forms. In extreme ice cover years, the thermal structure of the lake could be impacted for the rest of the year, potentially leading to less evaporation from the lakes (and possibly higher water levels) in the following fall. It is important to note that evaporation and precipitation are the major drivers of seasonal water level changes in the Great Lakes. A winter of low evaporation due to ice cover could be negated by a dry spring with little rainfall.

Ice and Harmful Algal Blooms

Harmful algal blooms typically require a water temperature of at least 60 degrees to bloom. The percentage of ice coverage does play a part in water temperatures later in the year – the spring temperatures will have to melt the ice first before the water below the ice is able to warm up. In a year with a greater extent of ice cover, it will take longer for the lake to warm up to 60 degrees, and this could lead to a shorter harmful algal bloom season. However, factors such as nutrient runoff and spring/summer weather patterns can impact the extent of harmful algal blooms as well.

Want to learn more about ice? Check out NOAA GLERL’s Coastwatch program – with real-time observation of ice on the Great Lakes.

Ice coverage across the Great Lakes. Lake Erie has the largest coverage with over 85% as of January 8, 2018.


NOAA GLERL Great Lakes Ice Cover page:

National Weather Service Great Lakes Ice Analysis:

Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System Annual Ice Cover Comparison:

Sarah Orlando is the Ohio Clean Marinas Program Manager, Ohio Sea Grant College Program. You can contact her at: 419-609-4120,, @SarahAOrlando.

Why Money Has Value and the National Debt

In my last blog post, which you can read here, I explained the difference between the federal budget deficit and the national debt and showed how they are related to each other.  I severely criticized the Republican party for the way its leaders used the issue of the national debt to try to humiliate President Obama throughout his presidency.  The Republicans claimed that a $14 trillion dollar debt and then a $16 trillion dollar debt etc. were grave threats to the national economy.  I showed that the national debt at these levels was in fact not a threat at all, and that the Republicans and some rogue economists either knew or should have known that this was the case.

Update: Now that the Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House, they recently passed “tax reform” that will cause the debt to soar to well above $21 trillion.  This of course proves that Republican political leaders have simply been opportunists and hypocrites all along, confirming the charges I was making in the previous blog piece.  For the purposes of my point, the timing could not have been more ideal.

I ended the previous blog piece by asking the questions: If the national debt is not the problem that “deficit hawks” claim it is, then why should the federal government levy taxes at all?  Why not just borrow the money?

How the Modern Monetary System Works

Before I give you the answers to these questions, let me remind you that modern economies use as money what is called fiat currency.  This means that the currency is not backed by any physical commodity like gold or silver, it is only backed by government fiat – Latin for “let it be done.”  The American dollar, the Chinese yuan, the euro, the yen, the British pound, the Russian ruble are all fiat currencies.

Now we are ready to answer the questions about taxes and debt.  The answer to these questions is that taxation is what gives a currency its value.  If you ever thought much about it, you probably have considered the horrors of living in a barter economy – where you have to find somebody who has what you want and also happens to want what you have and then strike a deal.  So money, of course, ends this problem.  But money (read: currency) such as the US dollar must have a foundation in taxation in order to have intrinsic value so that people will accept it in lieu of a good or a service (barter).

The best explanation I have ever heard for this reality comes from Warren Mosler.  He was giving a seminar at the time and the story runs something like this.  Suppose someone is in a room giving a seminar and holds up his business card and asks who wants one.  Many in attendance will take a pass and turn down the offer.  After all, you can probably get the presenter’s contact information from the Internet, so the card has little to no value.  Now suppose the presenter says, “There is an armed man outside the door who is going to escort you to jail if you attempt to leave the room without handing him one of my cards.”  Suddenly everybody wants a card!  They simply must have it.  Now the presenter says that you must do something like tidy up the room a bit in order to acquire a card.  People went from being indifferent about having a card, to wanting one, to even being willing to work to obtain one.  That’s quite a turnaround.  And it happened because they were coerced by the threat of losing their freedom if they did not hand over the card upon leaving the room.

This is precisely why fiat money has value.  As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.”  One way or another, you are going to have to pay your taxes, and since the issuer of a currency (in this case the United States government) only accepts payment for taxes in dollars, you must obtain dollars, just as the folks in the seminar must obtain the business cards.  And since everybody ultimately needs dollars to pay their taxes, there is simply no substitute for them.  You can talk about gold, silver or even bitcoin all you want, but in the final analysis, you must obtain money in the form of the currency with which you pay your taxes.

Pushing the analogy a little further, imagine what might happen if there are 50 people in the room but the presenter only brought 40 cards.  Everyone may be willing to work, but there are simply not enough cards to go around.  So some people are just not going to make it out of the room. These people are stuck.  In economic terms they are unemployed.  No matter how genuine their intentions, they are in dire straits – not because of anything they did wrong, but because of something the presenter did wrong – not bringing enough cards.  In other words, the root cause of unemployment is that the government has not produced enough currency.  It needs to issue and spend more in order to make it possible for everyone to get out of the room (read: to be employed).

Suppose the presenter brought 60 cards.  Some people might be willing to do some extra work to obtain extra cards and they may “employ” someone in the room to do a task for them to in order to obtain a card that they have earned.  So now cards are circulating among attendees, just as money circulates between consumers and businesses in the economy.  Some attendees may work to gain extra cards so that they will have them when they come to a future seminar. This is the equivalent of economic growth, and is of course desirable.  But at some point, if the presenter has brought and hands out an overabundance of cards, attendees who want others to do tasks for them are going to have to offer more cards per chore. The value of the cards will eventually decline in this circumstance. This is inflation, and it comes about when the government issues too much currency for the amount of economic activity people need or desire.

So there you have it.  Money has value, not because it is shiny or aesthetically pleasing.  It has value because government taxation gives it the traction it needs to have value.  And you and I reap the benefits of a stable currency within a stable economy.  The challenge is to manage the supply of currency in order to prevent unemployment and inflation.  Artificial restrictions on the federal government’s ability to manage the money supply (like a gold standard, fixed exchange rates, a debt ceiling or a balanced budget amendment) are counterproductive and must be avoided.  It took decades of the recurrence of devastating depressions, culminating in the catastrophe of the Great Depression of the 1930s before countries such as the USA learned that using a currency backed by metals such as gold was a recipe for continued needless hardship – hence the move toward fiat currencies.

Two Kinds of Entities in the World: (1) The One Who Issues a Currency and (2) Everybody Else

With its own fiat currency, concern about the federal government “running out of money” because of debt is unfounded because the federal government alone creates currency and therefore can never run out.  Note that this is NOT true however for state and local governments because they cannot create currency like the federal government can.  If they get into debt, it can mean very serious trouble.  That is why many states and municipalities have balanced budget requirements.

The same thing is true for a country that does not issue its own currency, like those in the eurozone, such as Greece, which has been facing a national debt crisis for nearly a decade now.  Read my blog on a comparison between the debts of a country with its own currency like the USA and one that does not have its own currency like Greece here.

So when the economy of a country that issues its own currency slows down, goes into recession, and unemployment rises, the government has a duty to respond by producing and spending more currency.  This will cause the deficit and the debt to rise.  Sayings such as, “businesses and families are tightening their belts, so the federal government must tighten its belt too” are erroneous because as we have seen, the entities are not comparable.  If the government fails to increase spending in such circumstances, more people will become unemployed and the recession will get worse, just as more people will be stuck in the room if the presenter failed to bring enough cards.

On the other hand, tax cuts when the economy is strong, as it is now, make no sense at all and will increase the debt for no reason other than to transfer wealth from the middle and working classes to the wealthiest, which has really been the Republican economic agenda all along.

A Government That Issues its Own Currency Does Not Need Tax Revenue to Fund its Operations, But it Does Need to Levy Taxes

Another point of the business card analogy is that the federal government does not tax anyone because it needs the money.  When you think about it, it would be absurd to imagine that the US government needs dollars from anyone, since it literally can create all the dollars it wants out of thin air.  In fact, every dollar you have in your possession or ever have had was literally created by the federal government and then spent.  Otherwise you simply would not have it.  On the other hand, when the federal government obtains the currency back, it just destroys it – literally, and then creates new currency in its place.  It doesn’t need your money any more than the person presenting the seminar needs the business cards collected by the man at the door.

Moreover, notice that taxes do not come first – federal government spending comes first.  If the presenter in the seminar analogy does not bring cards and spend them into circulation, then there would be no cards available for the man at the door to collect from the attendees.  Similarly, if the government does not spend first, there would be no dollars in circulation among businesses and consumers to collect in taxes.  Think about that the next time you hear a person complain about “tax and spend.”  They have it backwards – it is spend and tax – and without that, we simply could not have a modern economy at all.

I encourage you to watch the video where Warren Mosler gives the analogy to business cards and money in a debate he had with a “libertarian” economist. Including what I have discussed in the blog, Warren describes the differences between private and sovereign government debt, the benefits of a currency not backed by gold or other metals, and why US government spending, which is often vilified by right wing politicians and the media, is imperative to maintaining a sound economy.

Warren Mosler and Tom Blaine

Warren Mosler and Tom Blaine, 2015, Saint Croix

I had the opportunity to meet Warren personally in 2015 near his home in Saint Croix.  Here is a photo of the two of us talking economics on an 80 degree January day.  Not only is Warren a formidable thinker, he is a gracious host.

So of the two questions I posed near the beginning of the blog, we definitely have an answer to the first: why the federal government must levy taxes.  But now a question may have entered your mind that flips the second question (about borrowing) on its head: Why does the US government have to borrow money at all?  In other words, if the government can issue dollars out of thin air, why does it borrow money in the form of dollars (from, say China) to finance the debt?  We know it really does not need to levy taxes to obtain dollars, so why does it need to borrow to obtain them?

The US undertakes borrowing primarily by selling bonds to banks, pension funds, other governments, etc. with a promise to repay the money with interest by a certain date.  As we have seen, the value of the outstanding US federal debt is now approaching $21 trillion.  But if we go back to our analogy from Warren Mosler, that would be like the seminar presenter offering bonds to anyone who would lend him his own business cards with the promise that he would pay them back with interest in the future.  Why would he do that?  It doesn’t seem to make sense, does it?  Well it may not make sense, but it is the way the system works, and I will explain why in my next blog.

Tom Blaine is an Associate Professor, OSU Extension.