The Wilmington News Journal: Fear-Based Food Labels Do Far More Harm Than Good

By Kent Messer –

Fear. It’s one of the most powerful human emotions. It can make you fight back, stop you in your tracks, or tread carefully. As a behavioral economist, I analyze what motivates people and how organizations, governments, and businesses influence individual choice. And when it comes to how consumers make their choices regarding food, it’s clear that fear is a big factor.

Think about your recent trip to the grocery store. Products from cookies and vegetables to meats and dairy all compete for your attention with labels touting health benefits or – more disturbingly – proclaiming the absence of perceived “bad” ingredients. It’s the latter type of label that’s at the root of the trend we’re seeing towards fear-based marketing in the food industry.

Whether it’s water labeled as gluten-free (which could never contain gluten in the first place), GMO-free tomatoes (all tomatoes are already GMO-free), or “no high-fructose corn syrup” peanut butter (true for all brands across the category), large food manufacturers and retailers – struggling to retain market share in the face of increased competition from upstart niche companies and products – are increasingly using this type of “free from” food labeling to play upon consumers’ food safety fears and misconceptions.

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