Psychology of Food Certification Labels
Eating is one of the most basic human activities. For our ancestors, securing a stable and secure food supply was a constant struggle and a defining aspect of their cultural and behavioral patterns. Hunter and gatherer populations developed entire ways of life centered on following the migratory routes of animals that they depended on for everything from their physical sustenance to their clothing and fuel. Later agricultural civilizations also developed advanced cultures that celebrated the cyclical nature of the seasons and the joys of harvest.
Today, however, eating is something that many people often do mindlessly and without much forethought. The relative abundance and easy supply of food that comes with an industrialized food system has drastically affected our relationship with the food we eat. Consider the following comparison:
An Ojibwa child from 1800 would have full-heartedly believed that wild rice (manoomin, in their language) was a sacred gift from the gods that fulfilled a prophecy that brought their ancestors from the Atlantic Coast to their territory located around the Great Lakes. The wild rice harvest was a spiritual and community tradition that was carried out with reverence every year by families who traveled the rivers and lakes in dug-out canoes. The slow process of threshing the heads of that sacred wild grass into the canoe bottoms offered the promise of sustenance throughout long and barren winter seasons.
A similar child from the year 2000, however, would most likely believe that food came from a supermarket. He probably had no idea that the Cheerios that he ate for breakfast consisted of oats and a smorgasbord of other chemicals. The child had no direct participation in the planting or harvesting of the food, and most likely had zero interest in how the ingredients made their way from the soil to their dining room table. This separation from food, one of the most basic necessities for human survival, also comes with important psychological implications.
In recent years, however, the myriad health crises faced by the American population have contributed to more interest and participation in the food we purchase and eat. Almost half of all Americans suffer from some sort of heart disease, and unhealthy diets are largely to blame for this widespread epidemic. On the upside, people are finally starting to wake up to the fact that having a direct, participatory relationship in the food we choose to purchase and eat is essential for healthy lifestyles.
Participation in local food markets is increasing, with about 12 percent of adults regularly visiting farmer´s markets to purchase fresh food and produce. An additional $226 million is spent each year by Americans who participate in consumer supported agriculture (CSA) programs. Even for people who don’t participate in the local food market, consumer demand for trustworthy, third-party food certification labels is yet another element in our deepening relationship with the food we eat.
What is Food Psychology?
Most people probably don’t consider food and psychology to be intimately related. According to the Mayo Clinic, however, “several studies have found that people who ate a poor-quality diet — one that was high in processed meat, chocolates, sweet desserts, fried food, refined cereals, and high-fat dairy products — were more likely to report symptoms of depression.” Nutritional psychology looks at how the cognitive choices we make regarding the food we eat can influence our nutrition and overall health. There certainly are bio-physiological mechanisms that affect our moods and behaviors which are prompted and impelled by the nutrient intake of our diet.
However, the choice of the food we eat is also influenced by psychological factors, and the psychology of food goes far beyond issues of mental health. The Cleveland Clinic, for example, encourages people to “be aware of the role that eating plays in your life, and learn how to use positive thinking and behavioral coping strategies to manage your eating and your weight.”
The Psychology of Food Certification Labels
Almost thirty years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began its obligatory nutrition label mandate. As the obesity epidemic began to spiral out of control, nutritionists, policymakers, and health care professionals felt that mandatory nutritional labels on processed foods would give consumers the information needed to make educated decisions on what types of food they purchased and ate.
Unfortunately, subsequent studies found mixed results, with most studies discovering that the majority of the population didn’t take much interest in reading or attempting to understand the nutrition information provided. The evolution of marketing and advertisement strategies for unhealthy food, however, has been closely linked with the rise in obesity.
Despite these trends, consumer demand for healthier food alternatives is continuing to grow. One recent study inferred that consumers today are less interested in reading the labels on their food because they believe that companies are producing healthier and more nutritious products. People who strictly adhere to certain diets, such as the Paleo, Keto, or Grain Free diets, are much more likely to read and understand the nutritional labels of the food they purchase. Low carb diets specifically require strict and rigorous limitations on carbohydrate intake, and this can obviously create a psychological incentive for people to pay closer attention to nutrition labels.
The Psychological Importance of Food Certification Labels
The John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future raises the following question:
“The potential for marketing to influence diets and health raises important questions: To what degree are individuals responsible for their own food choices, versus the companies that leverage their knowledge of human psychology to promote sales of their products?”
Food certification labels are essential to help health-conscious consumers and the wider public, in general, make educated and informed decisions regarding the food they eat. Trustworthy and transparent third party-verified certification agencies can reduce the scope of influence of branding campaigns and food advertising.
Despite federally regulated food labeling laws, much of what appears on food packaging is loosely regulated, if at all. The word “natural,” for example, has virtually zero meaning and implication for consumers. The USDA definition of “natural” allows foods to contain certain levels of antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals. Furthermore, many food brands choose to simply ignore regulations due to the lack of regulatory authority.
Food certification labels, then, put the power and authority of decision making back into the hands of consumers. By searching for foods that contain third-party verified certification, such as the Paleo , Grain-Free, or Keto certification offered by the Paleo Foundation, consumers can take back control over what they put into their bodies.