The New Food Economy: How “Free-From” and Other Food Labels Actually Affect Us

By Patrick Clinton –

What could be conceptually simpler than labeling a food product? You tell the customers what’s in the product, or maybe what’s not in it, or maybe what you did to manufacture it—or what you didn’t. Sugar-free, protein-rich, bird-friendly, shade-grown, non-GMO, made with organically grown crickets, anything you like. Just inform the buyers and let them make rational decisions.

The problem, of course, is that human beings are apparently not designed to make consistently rational decisions. And that’s true even when we’re dealing with apparently objective information like the claims we find on food labels.

If you’re not persuaded, you might want to check out “Labeling Food Processes: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” by Kent Messer, Marco Costanigro, and Harry Kaiser, just published in Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy. The article provides an up-to-date review of the evidence on how food labels—and especially the “free-from” and production-oriented labels (fair-trade, dolphin-safe, and the like) actually affect consumers.

It’s not all encouraging, so let’s stop for a minute and acknowledge what a blessing labels can be for people with specific needs—and how complicated it can be to get the information you need out of them.

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