What’s In a Label? Not What You Might Expect….

Does it feel like grocery shopping takes a lot longer these days? It is not that the stores are bigger or the lines longer. It is because every product comes with so many labels that reading all of them doubles my usual shopping time! Even a quick run to the store to get some milk can become quite an experience as I discovered the day.

As I reached out to get my usual gallon of milk a new product placed close by caught my eye:

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The blue and white of the bottle was similar to the cartons of milk but then I saw the “non-dairy” and thought oh, not milk. But wait, it then says “milk protein”. By now, I was thoroughly confused, re-read the whole thing and discovered it was a liquid derived from peas. Protein from vegetable sources is great for the diet but they are not “milk” even if the product is a white liquid. In case you are interested, it does not taste like milk either and not something that makes a natural pair with your cereal of choice.

Much space on the label was devoted to what it was not:

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This is part of the upward trend in “absence labeling” where the information on the label is not about what it contains but what is not there. Companies say this is because consumers are “worried” about their food and need to know what is in their food. IN reality, these labels are all about what the food is not, playing into consumers’ fears and not based on fact. Why talk about what is not there other than to imply that had that ingredient been there, it would have been harmful to the consumer? This fear mongering to garner profits by driving consumers away from competing (but completely safe) products undermines trust in our food system and leads to higher food costs and lower agricultural productivity.

A good product should be able to draw consumers on the strength of the advantages it offers, not by vilifying other products. So what did this product say about its strengths?

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It is “vegan-made” so made from vegetables. Why not simply call it a vegetable protein source?  It contains 10 g of protein as compared to 1 g of almond milk. It would be interesting to know how that compares with soy milk which in the non-milk category comes out as best in a recent study. That study also found that most of the non-milk products do not provide the same level of nutrients (or inhibit the intake of nutrients). It also has 12 g of added sugar, not found in milk.

I am curious about the calcium content that the label asserts and will be looking more into it. Two sources I looked at, one from the National Institutes of Health and another from Harvard Medical School do not list peas as a notable source of calcium.

And, of course, it is “non-gmo”. No GMO peas are grown anywhere, nor is there any GMO milk so this essentially highlights something that is not relevant to the product. It links into the prevalent misperception that, had there been any “GMOs”, that would have been a cause of concern.

This might seem trivial but it does have two important consequences: it will impact your food budget because that product will cost you more than regular milk or conventional version of the product. For consumers working on a constrained budget, this product might not be an option. If they have heard all the fearful talk around GMOs, they would worry that buying a different product might impact their family’s health. This is not the case and the worry is needless.

Now consider a country where peas are the most important part of the daily diet. The pea crop is crucial to the country but is being devastated by a pest. A genetically modified variety of peas has been developed by scientists, farmers are eager to try it out and avoid huge income losses, but the government, under pressure from groups that have heard that GMOs are harmful, refuses to allow the crop to be grown. This information comes from countries where food is plentiful and people have choices. But in our imaginary country, crops fails, family incomes are devastated, food insecurity rises. For that country, pest resistance would have been a potential solution which is now foregone because of a label that was created simply to sell a product and not to give accurate information.

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