Consumers are exposed to a barrage of food labels, and the results are mixed. While some consumers gain useful information, for others the label may as well say “certified confusing.” The authors of this timely issue paper provide needed clarity about the labeling controversy. They examine what is known regarding consumer reactions to process labels; they identify the legal framework for process labeling; and they provide policy recommendations that highlight the pros and cons of labels.

As stated in the paper, “Process labels can effectively bridge the informational gap between producers and consumers.” They increase consumer choices, open new markets, and help remove harmful ingredients from the food we eat. Consumers feel more connected and more able to make informed decisions.

Problems arise when process labels are subject to consumer interpretation. Are products really “healthier, safer, and more environmentally friendly”? Opinion can override credible science, and the consequences might include increased food prices and the stunting of technological advances in agriculture.

While some people call for a ban on process labels, these experts explain why that would be a bad idea. Labels can be good for consumers and producers alike, but the food industry and government officials should keep key points in mind: 

1.    Governments should not impose bans on process labels.

2.    Mandatory labeling should occur only when science-based facts prove that the product is harmful.

3.    Voluntary process labels should be encouraged if they are true and scientifically verifiable.

4.    Next-generation process labels should avoid the “all or nothing syndrome” while incorporating new       technology and imaginative ways to clearly inform consumers. 

The adage “you are what you eat” has become “you are what you think you eat,” as consumers struggle to interpret food labels. The authors of this paper explain how producers can eliminate confusion and turn the phrase into “you are what you know you eat.” Next generation labels should be clear, science-based, and consumer friendly.

Task Force Authors:

Kent D. Messer (Chair), University of Delaware

Shawna Bligh, Evans & Dixon LLC

Marco Costanigro, Colorado State University

Harry M. Kaiser, Cornell University

CAST Issue Paper 56 and its companion Ag quickCAST are available online at the CAST website,, along with many of CAST’s other scientific publications. All CAST Issue Papers, Commentaries, and Ag quickCASTs are FREE.

CAST is an international consortium of scientific and professional societies, companies, and nonprofit organizations. It assembles, interprets, and communicates credible science-based information regionally, nationally, and internationally to legislators, regulators, policymakers, the media, the private sector, and the public.