Food labels can be confusing. Many shoppers look for specific label claims that suggest nutritious products — claims like “natural,” “no GMOs,” and “no added sugars.” But consumers may not have a clear idea of what those words mean. The results of a new survey from Label Insight add to the growing body of research showing that label claims — particularly those that are vague or unregulated — are complicating the buying process.

Not only are some label claims confusing, they may be purposely misleading. Earlier this month, KIND Healthy Snacks filed a petition asking the FDA to update how it regulates nutrient content claims. According to the company, “The current regulation looks at the quantity of a nutrient instead of the quality of the overall food, which enables food marketers to put these claims on unhealthy products. As a result, consumers are led to believe these items are part of a healthy diet and misled into purchasing them.”

On the other hand, some nutrient claims, like “low sugar” (see below), could be used more often than they are, and food manufacturers could benefit from including them on their labels.

Whether label claims are loosely regulated, purposely misleading, or just plain misunderstood, the result is a gap between what customers think they’re getting and what the product actually has to offer. Below is a look at some of the labels that both influence and confuse today’s buyers.

What is natural?

Label Insight found that more than half of Americans are swayed to purchase products labeled as “natural.” This finding isn’t new — a 2017 meta-analysis of 72 studies found that consumers place a high value on naturalness.

“Natural” is a widely used claim (Label Insight’s database contains nearly 22,000 products sporting this label), but it has no formal definition in the industry. As a result, the meta-analysis found that consumers take it to mean different things, including how the food is grown (e.g., organic, a term that is also often misunderstood to mean “pesticide-free”), how the food is produced (e.g., minimal processing), and the final product (e.g., healthy).

These ideas don’t jibe very well with what the FDA has to say. The agency considers natural food to be products to which “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added.” Note that this definition says nothing about farming practices, processing methods, or nutrient content.

One option for food companies seeking to increase transparency and decrease confusion is to replace “natural” with more specific labels claims, like “no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives.” These labels may have more value to consumers — one study found that 70% of consumers would even be willing to substitute a favorite food product with one that clearly states its absence of artificial ingredients.

There is some evidence that food companies are taking this path. A 2018 analysis of Mintel data found that “all-natural” claims on new product launches fell 51% in the five preceding years.

Shoppers not sweet on sugars

Sugar intake weighs heavily on the minds of today’s consumers. The Label Insight survey found that 46% of respondents preferred to purchase items marketed as having low or no sugar content. And the International Food Information Council found that over 75% of consumers are trying to limit or avoid sugars altogether.

The challenge for consumers is that there are at least 61 names for sugar used on food labels.

The FDA sought to address confusion concerning sugar with the new Nutrition Facts label, which requires manufacturers to specify added sugars.

While the new labeling regulations have caused some concern in the industry, Label Insight data suggest an opportunity as well. More than 80,000 products in the company’s database that qualify for “low sugar” or “sugar-free” labels aren’t taking advantage of them.

Animal welfare matters

Many meat-eaters want to know that the animals they consume were treated humanely. Of those surveyed by Label Insight, 34% said they were more likely to buy “antibiotic-free” products, and 25% were influenced by “grass-fed” labeling.

Here again, meat processors may not be using their label claims to their best advantage. In particular, 467 products in the Label Insight database are labeled “free-range,” while 862 are labeled “pasture-raised.” These terms are synonyms, but consumers are more likely to be swayed by “free-range” (26%) than by “pasture-raised” (17%). This suggests that companies currently promoting their products as “pasture-raised” may see better results if they switch.

But these and other labels still leave room for customer misinterpretation. For example, “free-range” paints a picture of livestock roaming freely through vast green areas. However, regulations simply require animals to have access to outdoor spaces.  

Rather than using complicated or unregulated terms, meat, egg, and dairy producers that want to appeal to consumers concerned about animal welfare might benefit from participating in third-party certification programs.

Unnecessary “free-from” label claims

While the Label Insight study found some opportunities for manufacturers to add meaningful claims to their labels, the industry has also struggled with unnecessary label claims that paint an inaccurate picture of the product category as a whole.

For example, last December, the FDA released the new standard for disclosing genetically modified food items. Although many praised the standard, there were also several criticisms, including the fact that it doesn’t address the labeling of foods as “non-GMO.”

The problem is that many products labeled “non-GMO” have no GMO counterparts. When companies label these products as “non-GMO,” the false implication is that their competitors’ products do contain GMOs.

The same issue arises for “gluten-free,” which has been applied to products that obviously don’t contain gluten, like bottled water, as well as “hormone-free” and “antibiotic-free” (hormones occur naturally, so no meat is hormone-free; all meat sold for consumption is antibiotic-free).

Overall, the grocery shopping experience can be confusing, especially for consumers who want to eat according to certain food values. A recent Food Insight study found that 80% of consumers encountered contradictory information in their search for nutritious foods, and 59% said those findings caused them to doubt their purchasing decisions.

How can food processors and manufacturers mitigate that doubt and simplify the buying process? Consumers say it’s about trust.

Some of the most important influencers in consumer food choices are the ability to recognize items on ingredient lists, find food sourcing information, and understand how food is produced. Businesses can build trust by providing specific answers to these questions in a way that’s easy for their consumers to understand.

Those that do will be rewarded — FMI and Label Insight have found that 86% of grocery shoppers say they would feel a higher level of trust for food manufacturers and retailers who provide complete ingredient information, 75% of consumers will switch to a brand that provides in-depth product information, and 54% are willing to pay more for products with more information.