Food Labeling Perceptions and Misconceptions

By Malia Musso – Accounting Major, The Ohio State University

Health conscious consumers are on the rise, whether it be us or someone we know well. I can definitely say that I am one of those people.  After being diagnosed with Celiac disease (an autoimmune disease where the body attacks the lining of the small intestine upon consumption of gluten-containing foods) about a year ago, I went through a complete diet shift. I had to read labels on everything I bought, and I became hyperaware of food labels, the power of labeling, and how misleading these labels can be.

We have become accustomed to certain buzz words, particularly “Gluten Free,” but also “Organic.” These words carry immense purchasing power, which is why they’re becoming so widespread. Although I’m pleased that finding certified gluten free foods is extremely easy, I find that food labels with these buzz words can be misleading for consumers who are trying to be healthier. Many people would feel better about eating an organic or gluten free spinoff of Cocoa-Puffs than the original, even if it is still filled with sugar. Science Daily magazine calls this the “Health Halo Effect.” Essentially, more companies are altering products so they can include these labels because purchasing trends show that the products will sell. The graph below from the United States Department of Agriculture shows the growing trend in organic foods over the past nine years. Every category of organic foods is growing, including packaged foods and snacks.

U.S. organic Food Sales

USDA Economics Research Service

Consumers must be aware of marketing strategies and their perceptions of these labels. The quest for better health cannot stop at the mere label of “organic” or “gluten free.”  It is important for consumers to be aware of the ingredients in their foods, regardless of if they are organic, contain wheat, or not.  The “Health Halo Effect” is proof that perceptions drive behaviors. I can say from experience that gluten free packaged foods often contain higher amounts of sugars to compensate for taste and are often filled with wheat replacements that are no healthier than wheat. Consumers must realize that a truly healthy diet requires more than a buzzword on the box.

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I am in my fourth year at the Ohio State University studying accounting. I am very interested in the food industry and learning about food labels, production, and growing techniques in the US.

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