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A Brief History of Food Declarations; and the Path to Better Ones

Food is not about boxed brands on a shelf, but about people and the environment — hence, our need for food declarations. We’re working on one that not only certifies the ingredients, but shows consumers the impact they make with the purchase of each product.

What image comes to mind when you picture the word “natural?” Wide open spaces? Pristine forests? Take that same word, “natural,” and put it on a bag of chips in the grocery store. Now what do you picture? For me, “natural” evokes visions of kettle chips instead of regular potato chips, or trendy sweet potatoes versus boring russett. Whatever image your mind created, chances are some company out there has spent money trying to influence it. 

Putting claims such as “natural,” or certifications such as “USDA Organic,” on a food package is a prominent way food companies attempt to influence our purchase behavior. Some cite consumer “certification fatigue” as a sign there are too many of these declarations out there, but within the concept of food declarations is powerful insight into our motivations for buying and consuming certain foods.

First, let’s start with how and why food declarations get defined. For basically every word other than a food declaration, the word is defined through a process of convergence. Dictionary editors (yes, there is such a thing) scour the written universe for patterns of word use. They also search for new uses of existing words, and cite these uses in a large database. When there are enough citations for a given use of a word, that use is formally defined by adding the definition to the dictionary (think of how our use of “text” has changed over the years). Food declarations, however, tend to be defined through a process of divergence. Rather than noticing patterns of a food term’s ubiquitous use, authorities look for differences in the ways food terms are used as their trigger for the need to define. 

Take “natural” as an example. As health-conscience foodies began to seek out better food 50 years ago, the claim “natural” on food packaging began to cause problems. Food companies began to greenwash their products with the “natural” claim, even if they were highly processed or contained artificial ingredients. Consumers were duped by food companies taking advantage of the haphazard and divergent array of definitions (or lack of definitions) of “natural.” You can’t really blame these food companies, because if there was no centralized definition, they were not doing anything wrong, right? Apparently not. Lawsuits emerged, and eventually the FDA had to step in to provide an official meaning for the claim to prevent more conflict. In 2016, it announced that it was close to a final decision, informed by a public comment period, but to date there’s still no clarity on the official meaning of the claim.  

So, uniquely, food declarations are born out of necessity — due to conflict, rather than consensus. This is significant, because it means that a food declaration is fundamentally intended to solve some problem within the food system.

A similar process was recently undertaken to define “upcycled food.” Six months ago, the fledgling industry was struggling to provide a credible answer to the most basic question: “Yes, but what is ‘upcycled food?’” How do we classify this new food category, which reduces food waste by including ingredients made from otherwise wasted ingredients?”

To answer this question, the Upcycled Food Association (UFA) convened a task force that included representatives from Harvard Law School, Drexel University, NRDC, World Wildlife Fund, ReFED and more. The official definition was released last month, along with a research paper summarizing the group’s findings. Again, here we see a consensual food declaration being spurred through divergent uses. 

A step beyond claims are more rigorous certifications, where third-party organizations come in with strict standards for accreditation. USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified are brands in themselves, and their branding — when found on food packaging — provides extra assurance to the consumer that the claim being made has legs. But as consumer demand for more healthy and environmentally sustainable products grows, a business model has emerged for these certifications themselves, which provides legitimacy to products in an increasingly competitive and scrutinized grocery shelf. 

Food brands feel the need to add new certifications to their packaging, lest they appear insensitive to a given sustainability trend; not having a certification, like Non-GMO Project Verified, makes a bigger statement than having it at this point. Some say the proliferation of dozens of certifications has led to certification fatigue, as consumers’ attention is spread increasingly thin over a larger number of more narrowly specific certifications. 

One of the most recognizable and influential certifications is USDA Organic, which has been contentiously and passionately toiled over and iterated on for decades. The certification speaks volumes to consumers who want to eat healthier, more sustainable food, free from pesticides and other chemicals (although there’s a lack of evidence that organic food is, in fact, healthier). The brand of the USDA Organic certification has successfully carried the message that purchasing organic food is not only the progessive thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. 

The Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen declarations would have us dig a little deeper. These lists label some foods — such as strawberries, spinach and grapes — as “dirty,” containing higher levels of pesticides on the conventional, non-organic varieties. We’re encouraged to never buy non-organic varieties of anything on the dirty dozen list. Other items — such as avocados, onions and cantaloupes — are labeled as “clean,” with smaller traces of pesticides; therefore, it's a wash whether you buy organic or conventional. But there’s a problem with this analysis: The amount of pesticides left on a fruit or vegetable when it hits the shelves doesn't tell the whole story of the food.

What about the soil where the food was grown? How “clean” or “dirty” of pesticides might the lungs of the farm workers be? Just because the reptilian skin of an avocado protects its flesh from pesticides doesn’t mean there isn’t someone, somewhere, being negatively affected by the practices associated with producing that avocado. Herein lies the power of food declarations: to expand our minds from seeing ourselves simply as organisms consuming fuel, to actors playing important roles in a complex and interconnected food system. 

So, for that question, “Aren’t there already too many claims and certifications out there?” My answer: No. Food declarations help us deepen our relationship with our food, better understanding the systems and people who make it possible. Claims and certifications are the logical extension of the requirement to list ingredients on food packaging. The practice of listing ingredients and nutrition fact panels is based on the belief that consumers need to know what is in their food. As our understanding of our food system grows, we need to know just as much about where those ingredients came from, what the conditions during production were, and what impact they have on people and the environment. Arguing that there are too many food declarations; and therefore, we shouldn't use them; is like arguing that there are too many food ingredients for consumers to understand, so we shouldn’t list them, either. 

Over the years, our understanding of ingredients we want to avoid or gravitate to has deepened. As our relationship with the food system grows deeper, and our recognition that food is not about boxed brands on a shelf, but rather about people and the environment, so will our understanding of food declarations.

But of course, there are a lot of these declarations to keep track of, and not all of them are quite so inspiring or impactful. I often find myself frustrated by how arbitrary the standards for certification seem. What’s so special about 30% that makes it the threshold for including the “made with organic ingredients” claim. And even if I buy 100% organic foods, it’s hard to know what impact I’m having on the world by making those purchases. So, we don’t need fewer food declarations — we need better food declarations. We need claims that deepen our understanding of food, inspire us to do better, and align with our values. Most importantly, we need declarations that show us the impact we’re having on the world. 

That’s the idea behind the upcycled food certification, slated for launch later this year: to not only show the activities that food companies are undertaking, but the impact that I — the consumer — am creating when I purchase upcycled foods. Now that “upcycled food” has been defined, the UFA has convened the first-ever Upcycled Food Standards Committee, which will meet between June and October of this year before releasing the world’s first standard for upcycled food certification.

Ultimately, consumers will not only see what upcycled ingredients are included in a product, but how much impact they are having by purchasing that product, in terms of metrics such as pounds of food waste reduced, or pounds of CO2 emissions reduced.

Food declarations have the potential to change consumers’ minds and habits. They illuminate the lifecycle of food, and deepen consumers’ relationship with the food system. Just as there are countless food ingredients, some we seek out and some we avoid, so there will be many food declarations — some that matter to you, and some that don’t. The ones that do matter, however, should be the ones that show not only what the food product is accomplishing, but what change you are effecting by making the purchase. 

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