Study: Food labels helpful but their claims raise skepticism

Study: Food labels helpful but their claims raise skepticism

Posted Jan. 21, 2015

A growing number of shoppers say they find food labels helpful. However, consumer confidence in the trustworthiness of most food label claims has declined during the past year and falls precipitously when provided additional information about those claims.

The findings are courtesy of the Iowa Food & Family Project’s (Iowa FFP) annual Consumer Pulse Survey conducted earlier this winter of 353 health-conscious Iowans who make the majority of their household’s food purchases. With a 4.3-percent margin of error, the poll queried participants on a variety of food and farming issues including their take on specific food labels including “natural,” “local,” “organic,” “hormone-free,” “antibiotic-free” and “GMO-free.”

When asked which consideration is most important when purchasing food, “quality” ranked first at 35 percent followed by safety (24), price (21) and “how it’s grown” (10). Respondents also gave food labels high marks, with 77 percent saying they are helpful in making food purchases, an increase of 31 percent from a year ago.

Regarding specific food labels, “local” performed best with 62 percent favorability followed by “hormone free” at 48 percent and “antibiotic free” at 43 percent. Twenty-seven percent had a favorable impression of food labeled “natural,” down 7 points from a year ago. “Organic” was preferred by just 25 percent of respondents, down 11 points from 2013 while just 22 percent found “GMO-free” as superior to food not labeled “GMO-free.”

Carol Bodensteiner, former president of CMF&Z Public Relations, was not surprised by the drop in support of organic and natural labels, speculating a decline in publicity surrounding the labels.

For a number of years, CMF&Z conducted annual surveys that gauged consumer attitudes toward a range of food and agriculture issues. Through her experience, Bodensteiner advises consumers to look beyond media hype and learn more about what labels mean.

“We’re constantly being fed information through the media and other sources,” said Bodensteiner. “Too often we as consumers have accepted the hype without knowing the background.”

This point was underscored in follow-up questions regarding the validity of popular food label claims. Preference for food labeled “hormone-free” declined by half (from 48 to 24 percent) when respondents were reminded that that all plants and animals have naturally present hormones.

Katie Olthoff and her husband, Bart, raise turkeys near Stanhope. Although the U.S. Food & Drug Administration prohibits the use of added hormones in poultry, she still receives questions from her non-farming counterparts due to misconceptions on what hormones are, why hormones are used and how they are being marketed.

“These ‘hormone-free’ labels are very misleading,” says Olthoff. “These labels should really say ‘raised without added growth hormones,’ which is true of all poultry in the United States.”

Support for other food labels also declined significantly when respondents were provided additional facts about how food is grown and marketed.

For example, preference for food labeled “antibiotic-free” plummeted 16 points when poll participants learned of federal guidelines surrounding antibiotic use in livestock and poultry production. The FDA approves of farmers’ use of antibiotics for disease treatment, control and prevention in order to uphold quality standards of health, comfort and safety for the animals. Upon treatment, producers must then follow FDA-mandated withdrawal periods to ensure safety for human consumption.

Finally, respondents were re-evaluated about their overall confidence in food labels after they were provided with additional facts. The background information led to a six-percent shift in those finding food labels helpful to those who find labels confusing.

For Olthoff, the confusion is unnecessary.

“When I’m choosing food, I don’t think about its safety,” she said. “I trust that farmers and the whole food system are working the way they’re supposed to.”

For more information on the findings, and to join in food, family and farming conversations, visit

The Iowa Food & Family Project champions the continuous improvement of Iowa’s farm families and their dedication to providing wholesome food for everyone. It invites Iowans to become better acquainted with the dedicated farmers who grow their food and more trusting in how food is grown. The Iowa Food & Family Project involves nearly 40 dedicated partners, including the Iowa Pork Producers Association.