Here at CT NOFA we've dealt a lot with food labeling. We've written blog posts about it, linked to resources about it, and have an entire program dedicated to promoting GMO labeling efforts. The labels on the foods we buy and eat are incredibly important because they let us know (we hope) what's in them. If the food in question is something that's been minimally processed, like produce, labeling can tell us where it came from, who grew it, and how it was grown. In the case of more highly processed foods with many ingredients, labeling is often the only way we can know for sure what's in them.
Imagine a bag of processed snack food with no labeling on it whatsoever - just a blank bag with crunchy-feeling bits inside. Without any labeling you would have no idea what it even was, let alone what's in it or how it tastes. And let's be honest, we're all much less likely to buy a nondescript bag of snacks than we are to buy something that has a catchy description and graphic design tailored specifically to our tastes. The world of food packaging is part of the advertising industry, a very lucrative industry, and we as consumers are the target audience. It's in food manufacturers' best interests to label foods in such a way that will get us to buy them, whether that's through an honest and transparent portrayal of what's in the food and how the food was made, or through more deceptive means. Government regulated food labels exist to mitigate deceptive labeling and promote a more honest food system, but not all labels - even some of the ones that sound really legitimate - actually mean anything legally. And not all facts about the foods we eat (like GMOs) are actually required to be disclosed to consumers.
Take this story about two California mothers who are suing General Mills. The label in question in this case is the "Natural" label, a term that's only regulated when applied to meats and poultry, and has absolutely no meaning when applied to snack foods like Nature Valley Granola Bars. The lawsuit's main focus is on the natural label, but it's also the whole package - literally, the granola bars are in a package filled with design choices that give potential buyers that "wholesome, healthy feeling" - that is cause for concern. With packaging that looks so close to nature, the contents of the box must be natural too, right? It might be a little exhausting at first, but a little research and critical thinking before you head to the store can outsmart savvy advertisements later on.
Here is a searchable database that explains what a large variety of labels really mean. You can search by label, product category, or certifier. Short on time? A good bet is to briefly scrutinize the nutrition facts label and ingredients list on the product before putting it in your shopping cart. It won't tell you how the food was made, but at least you'll know if that fruit juice is really all juice or if it has a bunch of added sugar, and if that sugar is "evaporated cane juice" (actual sugar) or high fructose corn syrup. Plus, in the case of juice, that "100% juice" label does actually mean something!
Have a nutritionally enlightened day,