Eye-catching labels stigmatize many healthy foods

When customers walk down aisles of grocery stores, they are inundated with labels such as organic, fair-trade and cage-free, just to name a few. Labels such as these may be eye-catching but are often free of any scientific basis and stigmatize conventionally produced foods, a new University of Delaware led study found.

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The paper published recently in the journal Applied Economics Perspectives and Policy examined the good, the bad and the ugly of food labeling to see how labels identifying the process in which food was produced positively and negatively influenced consumer behavior. By reviewing over 90 academic studies on consumer response to process labels, the researchers found that while these labels satisfy consumer demand for quality assurances and can create value for both consumers and producers, misinterpretation is common and can stigmatize food produced by conventional processes even when there is no scientific evidence those foods cause harm. For the poor, in particular, there is danger in misunderstanding which food items are safe, said Kent Messer, the study’s lead author and the Unidel Howard Cosgrove Career Development Chair for the Environment. “That has me worried about the poor and those who are food insecure,” said Messer, who is also director of the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Because now you’re trying to make everything a high-end food choice and frankly, we just want to have healthy food choices, we don’t need to have extra labels that scare away people,”

Process labels, by definition, focus on the production of food, but largely ignore important outcomes of the process such as taste or healthiness. According to Messer and his study co-authors, policy changes could help consumers better understand their choices. They argue governments should not impose bans on process labels but rather encourage labels that help document how the processes affect important quality traits, such as calorie count. “Relying on process labels alone, on the other hand, is a laissez-faire approach that inevitably surrenders the educational component of labeling to mass media, the colorful array of opinion providers, and even food retailers, who may not always be honest brokers of information,” the researchers wrote.

The Good

With regards to the positive impact process labels have on consumers, Messer said that consumers are able to more freely align their purchasing decisions with their values and preferences. If, for example, a consumer wants to buy fair trade coffee, they are able to do so with greater ease. “The good part is that process labels can help bridge the trust between the producer and the consumer because it gives the consumer more insight into the market,” said Messer. “New products can be introduced this way, niche markets can be created, and consumers, in many cases, are willing to pay more for these products. It’s good for the industry, consumers are getting what they want, and new players get to find ways of getting a higher price.”

The Bad

The sad part is that consumers are already in the midst of a marketplace filled with information that can be overwhelming because of the sheer amount of product choices and information available. Also, when most consumers go to buy food, they are often crunched for time. “Human choice tends to be worse when you put time constraints on it,” said Messer. “Maybe you’ve got a child in the aisle with you, and now you’re adding this new label, and there’s lots of misinterpretation of what it means. The natural label is a classic one which means very little, yet consumers assume it means more than it does. They think it means ‘No GMO,’ but it doesn’t. They think it means it is ‘organic,’ but it isn’t. This label is not helping them align their values with their food, and they’re paying a price premium but not getting what they wanted to buy.”

Messer said that another problem is “halo effects,” overly optimistic misinterpretation of what a label means. “If you show consumers a chocolate bar that is labeled as ‘fair trade,’ some will tell you that it has lower calories,” Messer said. “But the label is not about calories. Consumers do this frequently with the ‘organic’ label as they think it is healthy for the consumer. Organic practices may be healthier for the farm workers or the environment, but for the actual consumer, there’s very little evidence behind that. You’re getting lots of mixed, wrong messages out there.”

The Ugly

Like halo effects, the ugly side of food processing labels come into play when labels sound like they have a positive impact but really have a negative one. A label such as “low food miles” might sound nice but could actually be causing more harm than good. “Sometimes, where food is grown doesn’t mean that it’s actually the best for climate change,” said Messer. Hothouse tomatoes grown in Canada, for example, might have low food miles for Canadian consumers but it’s probably far better environmentally, because of all the energy expended in creating tomatoes in an energy-intensive hothouse in Canada, to grow the tomatoes in Florida and then ship them to Canada.

“If you just count miles and not true energy use, you can get people paying more money for something that’s actually going the opposite of what they wanted which is to get a lower carbon footprint,” said Messer. He added that the ugly side of food labeling is that a lot of fear is being introduced into the marketplace that isn’t based on science. “When you start labeling everything as ‘free of this’ such as ‘gluten-free water,’ you can end up listing stuff that could never have been present in the food in the first place,” Messer said. “These ‘free of’ labels can cause unnecessary fear and cast the conventionally produced food in a harsh, negative light.”

Since the vast majority of the food market is still conventionally produced and is the lower cost product, there is a danger in taking that safe food and calling it unsafe because of a few new entrants into the food market. Messer also said that there is evidence that food companies are getting worried about investing in science and technology because they don’t know how the consumer is going to respond or how marketers are going to attack their food product because it’s new and different and therefore, can be labeled as harmful or dangerous. “We’ve got a lot of mouths to feed in our country and around the world,” Messer said. “We are currently able to feed so many because of advances in agricultural science and technology. If we’re afraid of that now, we have a long-term impact on the poor that could be quite negative in our country and around the world. That’s when I start thinking these process labels could really be ugly.”

Adapted by: Kent D. Messer, Marco Costanigro, Harry M. Kaiser. Labeling Food Processes: The Good, the Bad and the UglyApplied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 2017; 39 (3): 407 DOI: 10.1093/aepp/ppx028

Nutrition Nugget

Don’t Drink Sugar Calories! Sugary drinks are the most fattening things you can put into your body. This is because liquid sugar calories are not registered by the brain in the same way as calories from solid foods. For this reason, when you drink soda, you end up intaking more total calories. Sugary drinks are strongly associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and all sorts of health problems. Keep in mind that fruit juices are almost as bad as soda in this regard. They contain just as much sugar, and the small amounts of antioxidants do NOT negate the harmful effects of the sugar.

W.O.D. Nugget

Dolce: (especially as a direction) sweetly and softly.

Inspiration Nugget

God will help you overcome wrong motives and intentions if you'll simply ask and receive help rather than trying to do it on your own.

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Brain cancer growth halted by absence of protein

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The growth of certain aggressive brain tumors can be halted by cutting off their access to a signaling molecule produced by the brain’s nerve cells, according to a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. When the signaling molecule neuroligin-3 was absent, or when its signal was interrupted with medication, human cancers called high-grade gliomas could not spread in the brains of mice, the researchers found. The study will be was published online Sept. 20 in Nature. Graduate student Humsa Venkatesh is the study’s lead author.

“We thought that when we put glioma cells into a mouse brain that was neuroligin-3 deficient, that might decrease tumor growth to some measurable extent. What we found was really startling to us: For several months, these brain tumors simply didn’t grow,” said Michelle Monje, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurology and senior author of the study. The findings suggest that interrupting the neuroligin-3 signal could be a helpful strategy for controlling high-grade gliomas in human patients, Monje added. High-grade gliomas are a group of deadly brain tumors that include adult glioblastoma, the brain cancer now affecting U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona; anaplastic oligodendroglioma; pediatric glioblastoma; and a pediatric tumor called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). Five-year survival rates are 60 percent for anaplastic oligodendroglioma, around 10 percent for adult and pediatric glioblastomas and virtually nonexistent for DIPG. New treatments are urgently needed.

Hijacking the normal machinery

The new findings build on prior research published by Monje’s team in 2015. At that time, the scientists showed that neuroligin-3 fueled the growth of high-grade gliomas. This was surprising because the protein is a part of the normal machinery of neuroplasticity in a healthy brain, and it is a relatively new concept that cancer can hijack an organ’s healthy function to drive cancer growth. In the new study, Monje’s team examined mice that were genetically engineered to lack neuroligin-3. These mice have nearly normal brain function. However, when their brains were implanted with any of the forms of human high-grade glioma, the cancer cells could not proliferate. The growth stagnation persisted for several months.

“Lack of neuroligin-3 doesn’t kill the cancer cells; the cells that are there remain there, but they do not grow,” Monje said. However, 4½ months after implantation, tumors in some mice circumvented their dependency on neuroligin-3 and began to grow again, she added.

Effect specific to high-grade gliomas

The researchers also tried implanting the brains of mice lacking neuroligin-3 with human breast cancer cells. Lack of neuroligin-3 did not affect breast cancer growth, showing that the effect is specific to high-grade gliomas.The growth-stagnation effects, conserved across different classes of high-grade glioma, were unexpectedly strong. To find out why, the researchers conducted follow-up experiments that examined the cell signals involved in neuroligin-3’s role in the division of glioma cells, which demonstrated that neuroligin-3 activates multiple cancer-promoting signaling pathways and also increases the expression of genes involved in cell proliferation, promotion of malignancy, function of potassium channels and synapse function. The researchers now believe that neuroligin-3 is more than just a gatekeeper of glioma cell division, though further research is needed to clarify its exact role, Monje said.

The team also explored whether blocking neuroligin-3 has therapeutic potential for treating gliomas. Using mice with normal neuroligin-3 brain signaling and human high-grade gliomas, the researchers tested whether two inhibitors of neuroligin-3 secretion could stop the cancers’ growth. One of the inhibitors has never been tested in humans, but the other has already reached phase-2 clinical trials as a potential chemotherapy for other forms of cancer outside the brain. Both inhibitors significantly reduced glioma growth during a short-term trial, suggesting that the strategy of inhibiting neuroligin-3 secretion may help human patients.

‘Clear path forward for therapy’

“We have a really clear path forward for therapy; we are in the process of working with the company that owns the clinically characterized compound in an effort to bring it to a clinical trial for brain tumor patients,” Monje said. Inhibition of neuroligin-3 will not represent a cure for high-grade gliomas, she cautioned, since it does not kill the cancer cells. Ultimately, she hopes to combine it with other treatment strategies against the tumors. “We will have to attack these tumors from many different angles to cure them,” Monje said. However, given how devastating the tumors are, the possibility of using neuroligin-3 inhibition to slow tumor progression is a hopeful development, she added. “Any measurable extension of life and improvement of quality of life is a real win for these patients.”

Adapted from: Stanford University Medical Center. (2017, September 20). Brain cancer growth halted by absence of protein. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 4, 2017 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170920131658.htm

Nutrition Tip of the Day

Make healthy swaps! For instance, try mashed avocado instead of butter or use whole-wheat pastry flour in place of white, refined types.

Daily Inspiration 

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