An MIT Alumni Association Publication

A trip to the supermarket can leave you confused about what you’re actually buying. Labels make promises that seem inconsistent with ingredients. There are unpronounceable terms, words with multiple meanings, and ambiguous claims. Is “natural” the same as “organic”? What’s the difference between “cage free” and “free range”?

In this MIT Alumni Association Faculty Forum Online, Thomas Montville PhD ’79, distinguished professor emeritus of food science at Rutgers University, explores these and other grocery store head-scratchers.

Montville points out that the food industry is changing—consumers want more transparency and higher-quality food. Since the market is driven by what consumers want, the food industry is doing its best to respond. Sometimes, however, the facts get muddled by a wall of jargon.

As Montville puts it, “The labels of ‘all natural,’ ‘no artificial preservatives,’ and generally ‘natural foods’ are used, but what is natural? A marketing claim. Brands charge a premium [for] being labeled ‘natural,’ but there is no legal definition for ‘natural’ when used in food ingredients.” However, the term “organic” is regulated, he explains. Products can only be labeled with the USDA organic seal if it they are 95 percent organic—yes, there are still certain exceptions—and food can be labeled “made with organic” if more than 70 percent of its ingredients are organic.

In the webinar, Montville also covers nutrition labels and supplements, herbs, and botanicals. “There’s a big area of fraud in the use of herbal supplements,” he warns, “in that they can only be verified as authentic by microscopic examination by an expert. Some studies found that 70 percent of herbs on the market have contained foreign matter or, in fact, not any herbs at all.”

The webinar was moderated by Grace Chua SM ’08, a journalist at Singapore Press Holdings.

Watch the video above, then catch up on previous talks from the Faculty Forum Online.

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