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Aisle Insights: What's in a Label?

Not as Much as There Used to Be, Iowa Food & Family Project Survey Finds

By Aaron Putze, APR

Reading and understanding food labels takes more time and effort today than the actual task of shopping.

It’s also very depressing.

Take for instance those shrinking portion and serving sizes? Seriously, who drinks just one-third of a can of AriZona’s Red Apple Green Tea or calls it quits after just two Girl Scouts’ Lemonades cookies?

If only.

Of course, no food topic is thornier than genetic modification. Just utter the acronym “GMO” in the company of friends, family or total strangers, and an uncomfortable silence will quickly engulf the room. If “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” cartoon was produced today, Linus would need to add GMOs to the list of things never to mention in a conversation (with religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin being the others).

For nearly 30 years now, the “discussion” about genetically modifying food ingredients has become anything but. As people are more interested and aware of what they eat – and as food has increasingly become a status symbol – the topic has quickly evolved from a conversation into a debate and too often an argument.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m OK with enjoying foods that include genetically modified ingredients. People and institutions who are objective and much smarter than me (e.g. scientists, world scientific bodies, and U.S. and global health organizations) are nearly unanimous in their agreement that such products are every bit as safe and just as nutritious as their non- GMO counterparts.

There have also been many benefits derived from modifying apples, potatoes, corn, soybeans and summer squash. They include reducing manual, on-farm labor and staving off pests and diseases that can decimate yields and increase hunger and malnutrition, particularly in developing countries.

That said, I respect those who have a different opinion on the subject. I don’t judge the decisions people make when shopping. Purchasing and enjoying food is uniquely personal. And why the fuss? Farmers and food retailers, after all, have risen to the occasion. If you want non-GMO, the selections are endless whether you shop at the nearby supermarket or local farmers’ market.

Long story short: I believe GMO foods are safe to enjoy. Others don’t.

And the sun rises the next day.

What does rub me the wrong way is when those with a vested (and financial) interest in increasing sales of more expensive non-GMO food products do so by disparaging their competition. While some may think it’s worthwhile to spend more for non-GMO milk, coffee, shirts and gummy bears, I’d prefer not to.

Seems like I’m not alone in shrugging off the contentiousness and hyperbole around GMOs.

A survey of 696 Iowans conducted earlier this winter by the Iowa Food & Family Project shows a similar trend among shoppers.

Fifty-three percent of respondents say non-GMO labeling has no influence on their purchase decisions. Conversely, just 38 percent said they were more likely to purchase food items labeled non- GMO. That’s a 15-point spread, the largest in the survey’s eight-year run.

What makes this finding even more significant is that survey participants are not just casually interested in food topics. Ninetyone percent self-purport to be their household’s primary purchaser of groceries.

Ironically, as more shoppers seek out info on food packaging, they are also becoming increasingly jaded about most claims made by food packagers and marketers. While 75 percent of survey respondents said they seek out information on food labels, a whopping eight of 10 say food labels are misleading.

Food labels matter, but consumers are growing wise to deceptive claims. Food packagers and retailers must resist becoming misleading or risk alienating the very same customer they crave.

Speaking of crave, please pass the Lemonades.

Aaron Putze, APR, serves as communications director for the Iowa Soybean Association. He was raised on a farm near West Bend and lives in Waukee with wife Crystal and children Garrett, Grant and Jaelyn. He is also the author of the book “Destined for Greatness,” the biography of Hawkeyes’ great Chuck Long.
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