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Aisles of Confusion

Making Sense of Modern Food Labels

Co Authors:

Justin A. Pruneski
Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences
Heidelberg University

Enya J. Granados

Heidelberg University

Kaylee M. Wilburn

Heidelberg University


In addition to traditional nutrition facts and ingredients, current food packaging frequently includes a wide variety of additional labels including: organic, antibiotic free, cage free/free range, gluten free, no added hormones, no MSG, non-GMO, and probiotic. Grocery shoppers are faced with many difficult decisions, especially weighing price against perceived health benefits. Looking at labels can influence consumers, but what the labels actually mean, who regulates them, and the effects of marketing strategies are not always fully understood, leading to misconceptions and misguided fears about food. This case study helps students understand the meaning of many modern food labels through in-class activities, group research, and student presentations in which small groups research one food label in depth and present their results to the class. The case concludes with a whole-class discussion on the variety of perspectives involved in food labeling, the causes and effects of high prices for labeled products, the ethics of current labelling practices, and other general themes. There is no answer key for this case, however a rubric, assignment guidelines, and a sample student report and infographic are included in the teaching notes.

  • Define terminology used in food labels, how they are regulated, and determine their significance.
  • Find, use, and compare multiple sources to address scientific claims.
  • Effectively communicate the findings of their research with their peers, in written, visual, and oral forms.
  • Appreciate the complexity of food labelling practices that may include multiple perspectives and impacts such as nutritional, social, economic, cultural, or environmental.
  • Use scientific evidence to make informed decisions in their everyday lives.
Keywords: Antibiotics; farming; food economics; food labels; gluten; GMO; hormones; MSG; nutrition; organic; probiotics; free trade; cage free; free range
Topical Area: N/A
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division, General public & informal education
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Analysis (Issues), Jig-Saw, Student Presentations
Language: English
Subject Headings: Agriculture   Biology (General)   Food Science / Technology   Nutrition   Science (General)  
Date Posted: 7/13/2018
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

Teaching Notes

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