What Do Food Labels Really Tell Us?

Article taken from the Vermont Fresh Network series on food labels first published in their Fresh Insider newsletter.


Are there too many food labels? There’s certainly a lot of them, although probably that’s been the case since commercial food packaging began. There are enough food labels it’s hard to even talk about “food labels” as a general category since that covers everything from allergen warnings to health claims to representation of how much product is inside.


Labels that suggest how our food was raised seem particularly fraught with intrigue - perhaps because they symbolize how little we actually know about the origins of the items we’re eating, perhaps just because the regulations can be a tad Wild West-y . . . if the Wild West had cared much about questions like what defines a heritage breed chicken.


Consumers look at many different things when learning how their food is raised, from pesticides to soil health to animal welfare to worker welfare to varying levels of vegan. And within this universe of labeling, we find different types - some good, some less good. There are third party certified labels, marketing claims that aren’t certified, uncertified marketing claims with pseudo-labels (a symbol of the Earth is sometimes just a symbol of the Earth), trusting the individual farmer (direct markets, here you are), and increasingly trusting the “gatekeeper” selling food. Food co-ops are perhaps the best known examples of this gatekeeper role, curating food choices based on clear guiding principles and input from the member-owners. Restaurants, especially “farm to table” restaurants, have become another common curator over the past decade. In recent years the rise of mail order meal or snack kits claim to do conscientious shopping on our behalf. 


The statewide nonprofit organization Vermont Fresh Network works to strengthen the local food systems through farmer-chef connections. They recently completed a series of posts to to help chefs, farmers, and consumers understand more about what labels do / do not tell us about our food. 


A point of editorial clarification: these are not opinion pieces, but the Vermont Fresh Network does advocate for local food purchasing and greater transparency in the food system. 


Read the series here:


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