Navigating the Grocery Store Aisle


Navigating the grocery store aisle is challenging for many consumers — especially those who want to buy the most nutritious food and stay within their budget.

Food manufacturers and distributors cover their boxed, canned, and bottled foods with labels like “whole grain” and “low - calorie” to sugg est that their food has certain health benefits. But labels that make health claims are usually intended to improve product sales and not to help consumers make nutritious food choices. When food marketing labels seem to contradict the labels mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which requires packages to include the amount of food, nutrition facts, ingredients, and allergen statements (ESHA Research, 2019), grocery shopping becomes even more complicated. In a recent consumer survey, 80% of respondents said that this conflicting information confuses them and causes them to doubt their food choices (International Food Information Council Foundation, 2018).

Among the most misunderstood food marketing labels are “non - GMO,” “natural,” and “organic:”

In a representative survey conducted by GMO Answers (2018), 69% of consumers could not define GMO (genetically modified organism). Wunderlich et al. (2019) surveyed members of Montclair State University and found that over 98% of respondents had heard of the term “GMO,” but only 8% of consumers were familiar with the definition. “Organic” foods are often credited with health and nutrition benefits that the food does not have (Noone, 2019). This is in part due to media frames that portray organic as ethical, healthier, and more nutritious (Meyers & Abrams, 2010).

The “natural” label, which is not regulated, has various meanings depending on who is using it (Nosowitz, 2019).

Food labels also exact a steep economic consequence, especially for lower-income and underserved populations. While all consumers often unknowingly and unnecessarily pay a premium for food labeled “natural,” “organic,” and “non - GMO,” it’s the lower -income, underserved consumer who pays the highest price. Such food costs them a more significant percentage of their food budget, yet they’re not getting what they think they are paying for. Kalaitzandonakes et al. (2018) assessed the average cost of the regular and non-GMO versions of various foods between 2009 and 2016 and found that the cost of “non - GMO” labeled food was 10% to 62% higher than for food without that label. A similar issue exists with “organic” food. A Consumer Reports (Marks, 2015) study com pared the prices of the organic version versus the regular version of 100 different foods. Although there was a great deal of variation, the average cost of organic foods was 47% higher. Putting this into everyday budget terms, if a family that spends $400 to $500 per month on groceries decided to purchase the organic versions of foods, this could increase their expenses roughly $175 to $250 per month, or over $2,000 per year. Consumers may be purchasing organic or other labeled foods due to loss aversion (Abrams, 2015). Unless loss or gain is quantified, most consumers will continue their current behavior (Abrams, 2015). Jeong and Lundy (2015) found that the product type (processed versus fruits and vegetables) and food label have a greater effect on consumers than the gain or loss.


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