It was enough to spoil my breakfast.
As I opened a package of bacon to cook while camping on the holiday weekend, I learned from the label that it was “gluten free.”
Gluten-free bacon? I was confused. Since when does bacon, which comes from animals, contain gluten, which is one of the components of the proteins in cereal grains?
It reminded me of a recent Twitter feed where the writer posted a photo of a service truck that offered “gluten-free tree trimming” and asked where he could find a gluten-free oil change.
When we were back on the grid, I Googled “does bacon contain gluten?” It seemed confused too. I waited several minutes and received no answer.
So I asked Siri, who referred me to Celiac.com where someone commented: “I have never encountered bacon that was not gluten free.”
The next website on Siri’s list was a little less reassuring for those who are concerned about such things.
“Not all bacon is truly gluten free,” the website verywellfit.com says. “The vast majority of bacon products don’t include any gluten ingredients. However, that doesn’t mean that your bacon is truly gluten free, you need to check it for potential gluten cross-contamination… (products) may contain trace amounts of gluten because they’re processed in a shared facility or on shared equipment.”
As bacon typically comes from facilities that process other meat products, I suspect the prospects for such contamination would be exceedingly low.
But with many consumers avoiding gluten, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and various artificial additives for a whole host of reasons, we’re seeing a lot of food products bearing labels that tell us what is not in our food, rather than what is.
Looking through my cupboards I find crackers that boast prominently on the label that they are “non-GMO verified,” which actually tells me very little about their nutritional quality or how they were produced.
It tells me a lot about what food manufacturers think will convince me to choose their products over their competitors’ products.
University of Dalhousie researchers led by Sylvain Charlebois, dean of the faculty of management, recently delved into the consumer psyche around GMOs and labelling. Survey results published this week are a stunning rebuke of how commercialization of the technology was handled in the late 1990s.
The industry took the position that it would be too expensive to label foods made with genetically modified ingredients, and it would lead some consumers to believe that they were different or unsafe, even though the nutritional quality was unchanged. However, refusing to tell consumers up front that the technology was in play allowed critics to claim the industry had something to hide.
It opened the door to reverse marketing, in which manufacturers can imply their products are better because they don’t contain something — even if that food never contained it in the first place.
The survey shows that consumers remain confused and uncertain about the merits of GMOs in the food system. “While 37.7 per cent of Canadians believe GM foods to be safe, 34.7 per cent do not.”
Just over half of consumers reported being unsure of whether they are even eating them, even though an estimated 75 per cent of food products contain at least one ingredient produced using the technology.
On one point the results were unequivocal. More than 85 per cent of Canadians think GMO foods or ingredients should be identified on the packaging label.
While the survey showed that price remains the most important determinant in a consumer’s food-purchasing decision (55.5 per cent), second on the list at 41.3 per cent was the category “no hormones or antibiotics.”
The labels promoting meat from animals raised without hormone and antibiotic are tough for producers to accept because even meat from animals raised with those production aids should contain neither. However, those labels do tell consumers something about the production system used to raise those animals.
Nutritional content, which arguably should be first in the Dalhousie survey, came third at 39.6 per cent. Non-GMO was sixth at 21.7 per cent.
Reverse labelling is clearly an effective marketing strategy. Some labels help consumers choose food according to their dietary needs or ethics; others are simply mischievous.
With a population that is increasingly unknowledgeable about where food comes from and how it is made, the onus is on the food industry to ensure labelling contributes to clarity rather than confusion.