By Erin MacGregor
These days it seems more often than not, foods are being marketed to promote what they don’t contain, rather than what they do.
Some of today’s most common label claims include gluten-free, free of added hormones, preservative free, raised without antibiotics, and arguably the most popular, non-GMO. These types of labels, which declare the absence or non-addition of an ingredient, are called absence claims, and they are increasingly crowding our grocery store shelves.
Absence claims can work as a powerful marketing tool
by giving us the sense we’re choosing something healthier, safer or simply ‘better’ by avoiding a specific ingredient. Conversely, it can also instill fear that we are not choosing what’s best for our health or the health of our loved ones if we choose an option without an absence claim.
But when it comes to the common examples used above, here are some facts that get left out in this labeling of “undesirable” components:
- Gluten is perfectly harmless for most people. Its absence, unless you have a diagnosed allergy (such as Celiac disease), does not make a food better or healthier.
- Preservatives have literally made human progress possible, as they’ve given people access to safe food and nourishment when they can’t access anything fresh.
- Antibiotics help keep livestock alive, well, and comfortable when they are sick.
- GMOs are proven harmless and offer growers the option to use less water, fossil fuels and fewer pesticides in helping grow more food.
Food production is complex, and by slapping a ‘free-from’ label on a package, we’re unfairly simplifying the full story of where it comes from and why it’s produced in a certain way.
A prolific example of this in today’s marketplace is The Non-GMO Verified label.
This label is commonly seen across a wide range of food products and it is easily recognized by its butterfly symbol. Food companies can apply for and pay to have this label applied to their products through the Non-GMO Project, a third party agency self-described as a non-profit dedicated to building and protecting a non-GMO food supply.
Consumers view these labels as a way to avoid foods that contain GMO ingredients, which they presumably want to avoid.
The reality is however, these labels are frequently placed on products that do not even have a competing product made with GMO ingredients.
As an example, there are several brands of pasta using the Non-GMO Verified label, whose ingredient list is 100% wheat. This is despite the fact that GMO wheat does not even exist in today’s marketplace.
In fact, there are only 10 GMO foods currently available to Canadians:
corn, soy, canola, alfafa, Hawaiin papaya, sugar beet, summer squash, aquabounty salmon, arctic apples and the innate potato. Any food proclaiming to be Non-GMO Verified that does not have a competitor containing one of these 10 ingredients, is using the label in a deceptive way.
Interestingly, a recent study showed that consumers will pay a premium of up to 62% for a non-GMO labeled food. If foods in this category can be sold for so much more, it’s no wonder food marketers are rushing to include this label as part of their sales strategy. This is not about better informing consumers, it’s about appealing to a larger market share..
In addition to misleading consumers about the content of foods, these labels also work to perpetuate a fear of GMOs.
With over 20 years in the marketplace, GMOs have been deemed equally as nutritious as their non-GMO counterparts, as well as equally safe to eat by more than 200 of the leading health regulatory agencies worldwide. Not only that, but the option to grow GMOs has given farmers more strategies to combat drought, pests and disease, all while lowering their carbon footprint.
The next time you see the Non-GMO butterfly on one of your favourite foods, know that it will give you no meaningful information about the safety, nutrition or quality of the product, and in many cases, it won’t even tell you about the content of that food. In short, it is a marketing tool.