Looking Under the Label
9 - 12
Students evaluate food package labels, determine their meaning, and use the Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning model to determine the value of the label in relation to food production practices, nutrition, health, and food safety. Students will engage in critical thinking to recognize the impact of food package labels in relation to marketing, consumer perceptions of food, and farming practices. Grades 9-12
Activity 1: Impact of Labels on Marketing and Consumer Perceptions
- If...Then cards, 1 copy per class printed single-sided
- Critical Thinking Prompts, projected for class or 1 hard-copy per group (8)
Activity 2: Food Labels 101
- Looking Under the Label: Categorizing Food Labels formative assessment and student response devices
- Looking Under the Label PowerPoint
- Food Labels 101 activity sheet
Activity 3: Production Style Food Labeling
- Give it a Minute: Organic and Conventional Farming video
- Looking Under the Label PowerPoint
conventional: term used to classify farming methods that employ technology such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or biotechnology
fertilizer: any material of natural or synthetic origin that is applied to soils or plant tissues to supply one or more nutrients essential to plant growth
Food and Drug Administration (FDA): a federal agency in the United States responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, and the safety of our nation's food supply
genetically modified organism (GMO): any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques
organic: term used to classify farming methods that limit the use of some common practices such as biotechnology and types of fertilizer or pesticide
pesticide: a chemical that is used to control an organism living and growing where it is not wanted
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): a federal agency responsible for developing and executing federal laws related to farming, forestry, and food
Did You Know?
- In a global study about consumer perceptions of a food labeled organic, 82% of respondents believed the product was chemical/pesticide free, 75% thought the product was safer, 68% believed it was better for the environment, and 67% believed it was more nutritious.1
- The word natural on a food label means that nothing artificial or synthetic (i.e., colors or dyes) has been included in or added to the food in processing. It does not address the farming practices used on the farm such as using GMO seed varieties or pesticides.2
- Fruits and vegetables are the most common organic foods that consumers purchase in the United States.3
Background Agricultural Connections
Down every aisle and contained on every package of food in a grocery store, a consumer finds labels on their food. Some labels make claims about the nutrition content or the healthfulness of the food. Other labels indicate production styles practiced on the farm where the food was produced. Some food labels in the United States are regulated with set requirements by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Other types of labels are not regulated by government or private agencies. They are added by food companies as part of their marketing plans to promote the product.
Labeling for Nutrition
The FDA is responsible for assuring that foods sold in the United States are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled. This applies to foods produced here in the United States as well as those imported from foreign countries. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) requires that most foods contain a Nutrition Facts label. In addition, nutrition content claims and health messages contained on product packaging must also comply to specific requirements.4 The FDA publishes A Food Labeling Guide outlining specific labeling requirements in many areas including:
- Location of labels on food packaging
- Name of food
- Ingredient lists (including colors and food allergens)
- Nutrition Facts
- Nutrient content claims (a claim on a food label directly characterizing the level of a nutrient in the food)
- Health claims (a claim describing the relationship between a food and the reduced risk of a disease or health-related conditions)
Farm Production System Food Labels
Increased consumer interest in the source of our food and the methods used to produce it has led to more frequent use of food production terms and labels to classify our food. Many of these labels indicate the production system that was used (or not used) on the farm where the food was produced. Almost all foods are produced on farms using either organic or conventional methods of farming. Both systems must manage soil health, pests, and weeds in crop production as well as make decisions concerning housing, nutrition, and health management in livestock production. However, they use different tools and production methods. An organic crop farm is limited to fewer substances that can be used for fertilizer and pesticides. They also cannot use genetically modified (GMO) varieties of seed.5 In contrast, conventional-style crop farms can use GMO seed if desired (and available) as well as synthetic forms of fertilizer or pesticide. Organic animal-origin foods such as meat, milk, and eggs are produced on farms meeting specific requirements. For example, animals are housed in living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors, they are fed organic feed, and the animals are not given antibiotics or hormones.5 Foods produced on a USDA certified organic farm contain the green and white "USDA Organic" label.
The comparison of organically and conventionally produced foods has been the topic of many research studies.6 While some minor differences do occur, significant differences (in nutrient value and overall food safety) have not been found. Published literature does not provide an obvious divide between organically and conventionally grown food.7 However, many myths and misconceptions are turned into erroneous food product claims.8 Organic production practices are also touted as being more sustainable. However organic farmers use some practices such as tillage to control weeds and that may involve more fossil fuels and thereby increase carbon dioxide emissions. To really make a comparison between the two systems requires research into each specific crop to determine which method is more sustainable. Consumers should understand the similarities and differences between organic and conventional produced food to make informed evidence-based decisions and not assume that "natural" (oftentimes uses synonymously with organic) is better or more sustainable than using tools and precision agriculture techniques to grow a crop.
In addition to dividing conventional and organic farming practices, food labels may also indicate the type of seeds used for crops (non-GMO), the style of housing an animal was raised in (cage-free or free range), the type of food they ate (grass-fed), or if animals were treated with antibiotics, feed additives, or growth hormones to treat sickness or promote growth.
Impact of Labels
Aside from the evaluation of farming methods, food labels may impact consumer perceptions and choices regarding the food they purchase. Following the laws of supply and demand, consumer choices also impact the choices farmers make in producing our food. Throughout this lesson, teachers can use the Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning model to encourage critical thinking and to allow students to understand what is really "under the labels" on their food.
- On the day prior to this lesson, assign students a scavenger hunt homework activity. Tell the students that they need to find and photograph ten different food package labels or logos. Let them know that they can find and photograph these labels in a grocery store or in their home cupboards/pantry. As criteria, let them know that any label, logo, or text giving further information about the food product is acceptable, but that all ten need to be different. Students should take a picture of each label and then may use an app to put all ten labels into a single collage. Display an example for further clarification.
- Before class, divide your whiteboard into the sections/columns listed below. As students come into class, instruct them to look at their label collage and place the text or a sketch of five (or more) of their ten labels on the board in what they think is the correct category.
- Nutrition Facts labels
- Health Claim labels
- Nutrient Content labels
- Farm Production System labels
- Once students have recorded their labels on the board, ask them, "What kind of messages are these labels communicating?" Allow students to offer their thoughts. Follow up with questions such as:
- Could a label lead a consumer to believe one food is "better" (more nutritious or safer) than another?
- Could a label influence a consumer to pay additional money for a specific food?
- Are there labels that could be misleading in any way?
- Show the, All Natural, Non-GMO, 100% Gluten Free Internet Video. After the video clip, point out that the labels on our food, don't lie, but sometimes they create perceptions that are not true. Discuss the example from the video clip, genetically modified (GMO) milk does not exist, could a consumer perceive that milk labeled "non-GMO" has a higher value or increased safety and nutrition over a milk that is not labeled "non-GMO?" (yes)
Explore and Explain
Activity 1: Impact of Labels on Marketing and Consumer Perceptions
- Define the word imply as, "to strongly suggest the truth or existence of something not expressly stated."
- Divide your class into nine small groups and give each group one If... Then... food label card.
- Instruct students to read their card and brainstorm what messages may be implied from the food package label. Point out that words on a label can imply messages in numerous categories.
- Tip: To help students think more about the "big picture," project the Looking Under the Label PowerPoint (slide 3) on the board or give each group a hard copy. Encourage them to think about categories such as food safety, nutrition, economics, impact on the environment, animal welfare, etc.
- Once students have brainstormed as a group, instruct them to attach their card to the board with tape or a magnet and list what is implied by the food label below the card.
- Once each group has recorded on the board what they believe the labels have implied, review each label as a class and add the Actually... card to the board which will define and give clarity to the meaning of each label.
- After discussing each label, have the class decide if the label "tells you" about the food or if it "sells you" a food. Answers may vary, and in some cases, your students could choose both. Use the following guidelines to determine:
- Labels that Tell You: These labels identify foods with an objective (measurable) difference from one package or brand to another. An ideal example from the activity is the "No Added Sugar" label. This claim can be measured (grams of sugar) and verified using the Nutrition Facts Label which is regulated by the FDA. Choosing a diet with foods low in added sugar has been scientifically proven to help people maintain a healthy weight.
- Labels that Sell You: These food labels separate foods that don't actually contain a measurable difference in safety, nutrition or other factors. While these foods may be produced in different ways (eggs produced by chickens housed in cages verses hens in free-range housing), the end product provides the same levels of food safety, quality, and nutrition.
- Summarize the activity by concluding that labels impact consumer choices. Some labels tell us a lot about foods, and other labels are for marketing purposes and can create misconceptions.
Activity 2: Food Labels 101
- Give each student one copy of the Food Labels 101 activity sheet.
- Project the Looking Under the Label PowerPoint (slide 5). Describe each of the four categories of food labels and instruct students to add the definition of each to their activity sheet.
- Open the Looking Under the Label: Categorizing Food Labels Kahoot or Quizizz. Use the game as a review and formative assessment. Students will be shown fifteen food labels and will categorize them accordingly.
- For added clarity, point out the following as you go through the Kahoot:
- The Nutrition Facts label and Nutrient Content claims can have some of the same information. Nutrition Facts are found on the side or back panel of the package. They are required by law on all foods with nutrient content. Nutrient Content Claims are found on the front of the package and are voluntarily placed by food processing companies to help market their product.
- Any logo, label, or text describing the farm where the food was produced would be considered a Farm Production System label.
- Some labels are regulated and others can be voluntarily placed by food companies for advertising and promotion of the product.
Activity 3: Production Style Food Labeling
- Now that students have been introduced to some of the psychology and marketing of food labels and they can recognize the types of labels that can be found on food packages, inform students that you will be focusing on some of the most common farm production style labels found on foods today.
- The first question you will be answering is, "What does it mean if a food is labeled as organic?" Share the Did You Know (Ag Facts) listed at the beginning of the lesson plan. Explain that you will illustrate what organic means with an analogy.
- Using the Looking Under the Label PowerPoint, show students a picture of a tree (slide 7). Explain to them that the tree needs to be removed. Conclude with your students that you will need a tool to accomplish the task. Ask for student volunteers to offer ideas of tools that can be used to remove the tree. Students may think of an ax, hand saw, chain saw, or even a highly automatic tree harvesting machine (slide 8).
- Ask the following questions:
- Will each of these tools accomplish the goal of removing the tree? (yes)
- Are there pros and cons associated with the use of each tool? (yes)
- Could different people see different aspects of each tool and have a different opinion of which tool is "best?" (yes)
- What are some pros and cons of each tool? (An ax and hand saw require a lot of physical exertion and would take longer to cut down a tree. A chain saw or tree cutting machine requires fuel and is more expensive to purchase but would perform the job much faster.)
- After summarizing that there are different tools that can accomplish the same job, explain that farmers also have many different "tools" to produce our food. For example, farmers use tools to control weeds and pests that damage and kill crops as well as diseases in both crops and animals. The type of "tool" or technique a farmer has used to produce a crop (plant or animal) is sometimes noted by a specific label on a food package. The "organic" label is an example.
- Explain that Organic farms represent a portion of farms in the United States. Most farms in the United States are known as conventional farms. They use some of the same "tools" as organic farms, but have a few more options to choose from.
- Watch the video clip, Give it a Minute: Organic and Conventional Farming to see the similarities and differences in organic and conventional farming methods.
- Summarize that foods labeled as "organic" were produced by a farmer who used different tools or techniques than a farmer who produces food on a conventional farm. In addition to the organic label, there are many more food labels that describe the tools or technologies used (or not used) on farms where our food was produced.
- Using PowerPoint slides 10-12 give three examples of different farming practices that are depicted by labels on food. Continue using the analogy of "tools" to illustrate that labels can indicate what type of tools or techniques farmers use in the production of food.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
- (Slide 13) Define the word psychology for students as, the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context. Ask, "Can psychology impact consumer decisions about food?" (yes!)
- Using PowerPoint slide 14, discuss with students why we as consumers seek and avoid specific things when we are shopping for food.
- Introduce the concept of confirmation bias (slide 15). Ask students to think of examples of confirmation bias in their lives. Prompt them to think of things they have been told and viewpoints they have seen or read on the internet or social media. Refer back to the example labels given in the If...Then... food cards used in Activity 1. Ask students, "Could confirmation biases impact consumers' beliefs about their foods? (perhaps) "Do labels impact confirmation bias?" (yes)
- Ask students, "Why is this important?.... so what?" Explain to students that our grocery store choices ripple through the agriculture industry (slide 16) , impacting how farmers produce crops and livestock and how food manufacturers process, label, and market their products. Review the laws of supply and demand. It's important for consumers to understand the food choices they are given and to select the option that will create a positive change when considering all factors (slide 17). Some labels tell about a food product and the practices used to produce it. Other labels sell a product with labels that mean very little and create misconceptions about food and modern farming methods.
- Challenge students to think critically about ALL food labels they see, especially those indicating the type of practices used on the farm where it was produced. Discuss what your students perceive as the pros and cons of these labels in our food system.
|Deceptions can be found on food labels. Rather than pointing out erroneous label content, allow and encourage students to think critically about what food packaging labels mean and evaluate the claims. Ask them to consider how consumer perceptions and biases may influence the search for evidence, and how credible evidence should influence decision making.|
Read the article, "Don't Be Fooled by Food Labels" to dive deeper into the meaning of more food labels.
To increase student understanding of the "non-GMO" food label, do the Interest Approach activity from the lesson, Evaluating GMO Perspectives Through Labeling. This activity demonstrates to students the types of foods that may and do not contain ingredients from a genetically modified plant. After learning about the ten plants that have a commercially approved GMO variety in the United States, students will be able to recognize which labels appropriately identify a food that could have genetically modified ingredients from foods that do not have a GMO counterpart and are simply labeled non-GMO for marketing purposes.
Have students complete a Venn Diagram to identify the similarities and differences between conventional and organic farming practices.
Explore the meaning of production style egg labels. Give students a video tour of Burnbrae Farms, a large egg farm in Canada with several styles of hen-housing. Have students watch each video and compare and contrast the benefits and disadvantages for each housing system in a T-chart. After completing the activity, students should recognize that when accounting for all factors there is no single "best" or "worst" system. Each producer and consumer chooses their preference. These consumer choices create a market that follows the laws of supply and demand.
Listen to the NPR broadcast, Organic Pesticides: Not An Oxymoron. Discuss student thoughts and the impact of the "organic" label.
Learn more about the USDA Organic seal by visiting the National Organic Program website as well as studying infographics that describe qualifications of labeling. Have students discuss their perceptions of the label and anything they are surprised by.
Explore statistics for chicken and dairy products. Discover how food products are advertised, compare prices, and evaluate the most common consumer choices.
As of January 2022, food manufacturers are now required to disclose if the food contains ingredients derived from a bioengineered (GMO) crop. Assign students to explore the USDA BE Disclosure website. Explore questions such as:
- What is the definition of a bioengineered food?
- What options does a food manufacturer have for disclosing BE foods/ingredients?
- What foods or retail establishments are exempt from disclosing BE foods?
- What foods have a bioengineered variety?
- What are the pros and cons of the BE Disclosure law?
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Food labels impact consumer choices.
- Consumer choices impact choices farmers make in the production of our food. This can lead to positive change as well as potentially negative changes.
- Some types of food labels are regulated by the FDA with guidelines for their use and others are not regulated and are used to market foods.
- Portions of Activity 1 and Activity 4 were adapted from materials prepared by Rhodora Collins, Ag Literacy Coordinator in Sycamore, Illinois.
- Portions of Activity 3 were adapted from materials prepared by Holly Partridge, Agriculture Science teacher in New York.
Recommended Companion Resources
National Center for Agricultural Literacy