Frank Garry agricultural column: What’s in a name… or a food label?

Note to Reporters: Frank Garry is a professor and veterinarian at Colorado State University.

Shakespeare wrote in the play, Romeo and Juliet, "What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet." He was telling us that the names of things do not matter, only what things are matters. This is a beautiful thought, suggesting that we should pay close attention to the characteristics of people and things rather than inferring too much from their name or label.

Those who promote and market goods, however, use all kinds of labels and descriptors to make sure that their product stands out as especially desirable. Assuming that a label really represents something honest and meaningful, and assuming that a consumer understands what it means, labels can be extremely helpful. Consider buying a “4WD” vehicle or a “waterproof” jacket — examples where a label really means a lot. On the other hand, consider a label that says “new" or “improved" and you’re not even sure what is better about the product.

Now consider this dilemma in the world of modern food systems. Our bountiful food supply has a good news/bad news aspect for consumers. The good news is that we have many choices in selecting foods for all the different qualities that they possess. On the other hand, you could think so much choice is bad news because the different options can be baffling.

How do you choose which foods you want to buy? You may want to evaluate ingredients or the content of certain nutrients. This information is labeled on manufactured foods but is harder to find for raw or unprocessed products.

Perhaps you want to know about the processing itself. Do you know what it means when a food is pasteurized, precooked, ready to eat, tenderized, irradiated, spray dried or freeze-dried? Foods are labeled with these descriptors but do you know what these descriptors mean? Because these types of labels are government regulated, they have a precise definition.

There are many other descriptors or labels that are intended to help you define something meaningful about particular foods. Some of these labels seem important, but if they are not well defined then they are more of a marketing tool than an actual help to the consumer.

Consider the terms fresh, local, farm fresh, nutritious, delicious, family-style, healthy or home recipe. Compared to what? Because these labels are not regulated, their value to you as a consumer is dependent on the integrity of the producer or the retailer. You have to define what you expect from that term and evaluate the item carefully to see if it meets your expectation. How fresh is fresh enough? Is the product damaged or spoiled? Even the term “local” is useful only if the consumer defines what the term means to them and evaluates how the seller is using this descriptor. You, the consumer, determine the value of these labels.

Perhaps most problematic are labels that describe a production practice more than a food characteristic. Increasingly, consumers are concerned about how their food was produced. A choice quality steak is still a choice quality steak, but perhaps you see value in how the animal was raised. Still, these labels need some thought on the part of the consumer. If the label says “no hormones added" does that mean no hormones given to the animal or no hormones added to the product? Does that product have less hormone content than another product? If the product says "sustainably raised” are the other products not sustainably raised? And who defined sustainably for this label? Some of these terms are regulated while others are not. Even for those labels that are regulated, the consumer needs to know what they mean if they are going to make decisions based on the label.

I will explore some of these labels in future columns.

In the end a steak by any other name will still taste like a steak, but there may be other food values beyond what the food product is. There is, after all, importance in a name, but the consumer needs to know how he values things that go by that name.