We need labels on our labels

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

There’s been a push lately for more-explicit labeling of foods—to make sure that consumers know that what they’re buying is organic, or free-range, or natural, or GMO-free, etc. But these labels don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes, they’re outright lies.

For instance, “organic” veggies still contain plenty of pesticides. There are the natural pesticides that ordinarily occur in food, plus the organic-OK chemical pesticides that are routinely sprayed on the crops. And, bonus, you’re also very likely to find synthetic, presumably evil pesticides on your “organic” produce, too. To make this more clear, I propose that the “organic” label, itself, have a label. It could say something like “may or may not have more or less synthetic or natural pesticides or other chemicals than you expect.” That there’s an honest label!

But wait—that term, “natural”—that might not mean what consumers think it means, either. The word needs a label! Products that say “natural” can be treated with radiation (typically to prevent spoilage and extend shelf life), and natural produce can be grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. “Natural” products, as labeled, can even include what are known as “genetically modified organisms” or GMOs. So, to be clear, we’ll just put a label on that word, “natural”. Something like “may have been made with chemicals or processes that many would deem ‘un-natural’, but who knows?”

I like that “but who knows?” caveat at the end. It seems friendly. Plus, it’s entirely honest. It’s a fair label that expresses exactly what “natural” really means.

And GMOs, GMOs – that’s a tricky one, isn’t it? “Genetically modified” is another term that’s unfortunately vague. In truth, the genome of any species is always in flux, changing at least a little bit with each generation. “Modifications” happen, with or without any intervention by us. And humans, who’ve been committed to agriculture for about 12,000 years, have speeded along the genetic modification of every single organism we consume by cross-breeding. Have a carrot, or a tomato, or a cow, and you’re eating an organism that hasn’t existed in “nature” for thousands of years. In the last hundred years, we started bombarding the genetic material of organisms with chemical mutagens, just to see what kind of characteristics we could get (that works quicker than cross breeding, though it’s kind of scatter-shot—you don’t know what you’ll end up with.) This kind of technology, though, hasn’t offended or worried the anti-GMO crowd, so these sorts of foods don’t count as “GMOs.” The genes are modified, sure, but not, you know, modified-modified.

So, in the interests of honesty, I’m thinking an appropriate label for the non-GMO food label might be “not modified using modern technology that we didn’t use, though likely modified in other ways.” Simple, short, honest!

All of these labels on the labels, that’s going to be a whole lot of stickers on your holiday ham. I’ve got an even better idea, one that captures the true spirit of all of these words and stickers and labels, a phrase that actually means exactly what all of these terms are all about: “BUY THIS.”

It’s all just marketing, folks. Of course, buy the food if it’s tasty and nutritious and something your family wants. But don’t fall for these food label words. It’s all marketing, nothing more. These words are there only to get you to spend your money. And I’ll bet you’ve got something better to spend money on than a bunch of labels.

Food labels

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3 Comments on “We need labels on our labels”

  1. wzrd1 Says:

    But, you forgot the most important label, “Unicorn Farts”.
    About the only thing I read on a label is what the item is, pork, beef, although I do read the fat content for ground beef and select the highest content of fat.
    Previously, I didn’t select for high fat content, selecting a middle fat content to retain moisture and flavor, but currently, I’m on a very high calorie content diet.
    Veggies, I don’t care what was done to them, where they came from, what was “modified” in them, save if one cultivar has improved nutrition.
    I’m on that high calorie diet out of necessity. It seems that my immune system decided to attack my thyroid, which then counterattacked and the rest of me got caught in the middle.
    When I get a chance, I’m taking my immune system and my thyroid out behind the wood shed and I’m bringing a large hickory switch with me.

    As for GMO foods, the only thing that irritates me is, I can’t order their seeds for my garden. Indeed, I’ll buy a ton of San Marzano tomato seeds that are GM’d to become multivitamins. A half dozen gives me my full RDA on vitamins.
    Instead, I’ll go to the store and ignore labels that say, “No Unicorn Farts”.
    Actually, I tend to not purchase foods that are labeled “No GMO”.


  2. Erin Weber Says:

    Well said, Roy! Imagine how confusing that is for folks who aren’t in the medical or health field. Yikes, scary stuff!


  3. Elisabeth Says:

    I wish you could get heirlooms without the hype. We have a nerdy attraction to purple potatoes and little fuzzy yellow tomatoes. (a pint of the latter is my summer luxury)


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