In some cases, label content is mandated. For example, California is now requiring coffee labels to include a cancer warning about a chemical byproduct that many health clinicians consider to be safe in the small quantities being found.
This may, in essence, mislead consumers about coffee’s safety, but it’s a regulatory mandate that manufacturers will be forced to follow. Notes Fox News, “A California court judge’s ruling ordering coffee companies to put cancer warning labels on their products is not changing the minds of scientists and health professionals who say there is no credible evidence to warrant the dramatic move…Some say that despite any well-meaning intention that may have prompted the ruling…it could end up unnecessarily confusing and even frightening people.”
In other cases, label content and/or graphics may create misperceptions, both pro and con about particular products. Vinepair.com addresses how labels paint a picture of the wine experience based on descriptions of certain flavors, etc. The publication contends in a report that wine’s taste is too subjective to be categorized on a label.
A Vinepair article points out, “To enjoy buying and drinking wine means we have to willfully succumb to certain fictions. We pretend, for instance, that we know what the juice inside the bottle will taste like. We do so based on visual clues from the words and art we see on the label…But one of the most important aspects of how a wine tastes is, simply, everything we think we know about it…The price we paid, especially, is a key variable: The more a wine costs, the more we like it…If you think that wine labels don’t matter, that they don’t affect the way a wine tastes, think again…labels play a very important role in how you think about what you’re drinking…Is the paper for the label especially thick, or the glass for the bottle especially heavy, or the gilding on the label especially ostentatious? That’s an unsubtle signal that this is an expensive luxury product, something truly special, probably worth paying a premium for.”
Then there are cases of downright deception. Notes shape.com, “There’s No Way of Knowing How Much Sugar Is Really In Your Kombucha…One registered dietitian shares what no one is telling you about the fermented tea…my eyes caught something new: 10g of sugar per serving…two servings per bottle make 20g of sugar in a bottle…I’ve been kombucha-ing for years and have downed several hundred of these bottles, thinking I’m having negligible (~2g) sugar per serving. There is no way 10g sugar would’ve gotten past me. Was it a labeling mistake?..the higher sugar count was part of a new FDA regulation requiring brands to provide the total amount of sugar used in processing the kombucha, not just the amount left after the fermentation process.”
The article continues, “The end product has far less sugar – but it’s tough to be 100% accurate with exactly how much less…there is much more to the story. [A 2016 study]…reported that there were massive discrepancies in the amount of sugar in the product and reported on the label. (We’re talking up to 300% higher.)…[Labeling requirements have changed] but they are not enforced at all – meaning brands can guess or flat-out lie about the sugar content.”
Bottom line, anybody observing strict sugar intake is likely to stop consuming kombucha in light of this mess.
So, what does all of this mean to product manufacturers when it comes down to truth in labeling?
Review, rethink and, if necessary, recast label verbiage and appearance. Are your labels conveying as truthful and transparent a story as they should be? Or, are they painting a potentially false or misleading picture? Due diligence is needed to help ensure that the information provided is as complete and accurate as possible. With wine, perhaps the description warrants rewriting to account for the subjectivity factor. The kombucha case demonstrates the potential loss of trust created by mislabeling. Not only does this impact that product, but it can plant seeds of doubt about the veracity of others. For a group such as diabetics, for whom this level of sugar discrepancy can be a serious health issue, it’s vitally important to get it right – even beyond the scope of regulatory mandates.
Look at how to address label regulatory controversies, and possibly turn a frown upside down. While coffee manufacturers must comply with the letter of the law, there’s room to address coffee’s upside in venues other than the label. A label QR code directing the consumer to “get the rest of the coffee story” can link to a website explaining health findings, facts and evidence about coffee’s healthful qualities – perhaps providing a branding boost that more than makes up for the seemingly onerous California regulation.
Just as everything else in this world, what you say on your label does matter. Make it a first thought, not an afterthought.
Mark Lusky is a marketing communications professional who has worked with Lightning Labels, an all-digital custom label printer in Denver, CO, USA, since 2008. Find Lightning Labels on Facebook for special offers and label printing news.