By: Megan Nichols

Consumers are demanding to know what, exactly, is in their food. The call for transparency is a call to repair trust in food production practices and ingredient names that have been shortened to fit on a small label space. What exactly are those mysterious “artificial flavors,” anyway?

The call for transparent labeling stems from the growing concern over food allergies and reports of foodborne illness spreading in the news. The urge to eat more self-prepared meals and grow your own food heralds a return to simplicity with wholesome ingredients. Most families today can barely find time to grocery shop, but they want to make the best choices for their health. They believe the food production industry needs to do its part.

Consumers deserve to know everything about their food. So who is responsible for food transparency, and what does it mean for the future?

Consumers Want Transparency

Consumers want food companies to be transparent about ingredients and from where they are sourced. In one focus group, the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) asked participants to respond to statements about GMOs being used safely, without effects of ill health, in the last twenty years.

Consumers reported feeling scared about the lack of transparency, feeling deceived and wanting to know why more information wasn’t provided in the last twenty years. If GMOs are safe, where are the details, so consumers can educate themselves?

Consumers say food companies are responsible for offering transparency, more so than grocery chains or restaurants. The lack of transparency has led to more distrust.

Food Companies Should Restore Good Faith

Food companies should use adequate communication to restore good food faith. Data analysis and product traceability through production lines are essential. Internal audits of food safety measures and practices are important to the consumer, and real time data is desired. With these practices in place, food companies can share this knowledge with the public.

Scientific advances in food production enabled food companies to include supplemental, yet questionable, ingredients in processed foods, such as artificial flavoring and preservatives. New scientific quality and food safety advances enable better vacuum sealing, freezing and microwaving to offset some concerns, rather than adding questionable ingredients into food.

As a consumer, you may ask yourself the following questions:

  • What makes supplemental ingredients taste and feel more natural?
  • Are supplemental ingredients bad for the consumer?
  • Artificial flavors, mixtures of milk cultures and dyes cost less in production, but what do they cost the consumer?
  • How do questionable ingredients affect long-term health?

Positive Change Is Possible

Consumer opinion has encouraged changes in food labeling over time. In 1906, the Food and Drugs Act was passed, which prohibited adulterated or misbranded drugs, drinks and foods from participating in interstate commerce. In 1924, misleading statements on labels were condemnable by the act according to the Supreme Court, but today labels still mislead. In 2009, the FDA issued letters to Smart Choices and similar programs with concerns to address; Smart Choices disbanded a week later.

In the 1950s, the Oleomargarine Act required distinct labeling of “colored oleomargarine” to show its difference from butter. It was previously being passed off as the real butter, according to the misleading label.

Most of the labeling consumers are familiar with today started in the nineties. The Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) required all packaged foods to list nutrition on labels with reasonable health claims. The FDA authorized some health claims for foods as a concession, along with requiring a nutrition facts area, serving size and heart check symbols for the American Heart Association, among others.

In 2006, trans-fat content labeling became necessary. In 2012, the USDA issued a call for meats to offer nutritional values and information on packages. Wal-Mart, distrusted by many health-conscious individuals, was one of the first to launch “Great for You” in 2012, which is an approval seal with stringent standards compared to its competitors.

Food companies should communicate clearly and take sincere action to address consumer concerns. Consumers want to be heard and have their concerns answered, instead of dismissed.

Label Developments Offer a Brighter Future

The FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) as of 2011 shifts focus toward prevention of contaminants, rather than response. It will give the FDA power to access and analyze food company records. Companies need to be more diligent in keeping records of manufacturing processes and sharing information with stakeholders, people within the company and consumers.

Transparency initiatives will benefit consumers and food companies, as visibility will improve operational practices. Keeping track of potential product counterfeits, upholding eco-friendly practices and working with suppliers directly will help food companies keep their products safe, affordable and transparent to consumers — and still allow them to make a profit. It’s the age-old formula of supply and demand, and consumers are demanding more transparency.

Transparent labels will enable and empower consumers to self-educate about their food choices. Additives, fragrances, colors and other misleading or artificial ingredients will be clearly defined, so consumers can make informed choices.

Technology will allow consumers to quickly scan a symbol or inquire about more information via a smartphone. Food companies will use their websites, social media profiles and active communication with partners to share knowledge and practices with consumers.

Transparency will restore good food faith among consumers if food companies act quickly.

About the Author:

megannicholsMegan Nichols is the editor of Schooled by Science. She enjoys writing about the latest innovations in technology and science.