Vermont Law School in South Royalton on Tuesday, December 29, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

Editor’s Note: This story by Claire Potter first appeared in Valley News on June 27th.

SOUTH ROYALTON – A Vermont Law School program focusing on food and agriculture has launched a new and improved site to help consumers decipher the complex food labels they need to analyze on every trip to the grocery store.

Laurie Beyranevand, director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at VLS, started the Unwrapped Labels website at labelsunwrapped.org after she gave a class on food regulation and policies.

Her students thought it was “the madness you have to do a law school class to understand these (food) labels.”

That was when she decided to start a project that would help consumers understand food labels.

Beyranevand worked with law school and Dartmouth College students to launch the first version of the site in 2015. The law school students took over the repair of the site about a year and a half ago with funding from the USDA National Agricultural Library . Beyranevand said they focused on making the website “more consumed and focused on all”.

Under the new version, shoppers can pull the website to make quick decisions when faced with shelves full of opportunities in the store. They can head to major food groups, such as dairy, products or protein, and then choose common claims and certifications to read short summaries that break down what they really mean.

There, they could find that the USDA does not pre-approve producers who claim their meat is “naturally grown”, or that “completely natural” labeling guarantees nothing about the increased conditions.

The new website also includes information on plant-based proteins and dietary supplements.

Beyranevand said the “most surprising thing” she found when she started researching food labels was that “there are some label statements that are very regulated and some are not regulated at all, and the average consumer has no knowledge of the difference.”

For example, she said phrases such as “gluten-free” and “low-fat” are highly regulated, while claims that a product is “healthy” or “natural” are not. She explained that restrictions on free speech often prevent the Federal Food and Drug Administration from enforcing its right to prevent manufacturers from making fraudulent claims about their products. The website breaks complicated laws about regulating food label.

Beyranevand said law school students will also update the website with in-depth “issue summaries” on topics over time, ranging from labels on bio-engineering food to questions about how human organic USDA farming is. She said lawyers trying to “push the needle into food labeling” will be able to rely on the website for up-to-date information on pressing controversies.

Cydnee Bence, an associate at South Royalton Law School, got involved in the project as soon as she arrived at VLS last summer. She is an expert in the field, but most of the research she did for the site again surprised her.

“I was under the impression that if something is labeled non-dairy, then there is no cow’s milk,” Bence said.

However, according to FDA regulations, manufacturers can label their products “non-dairy” even if there are products made from cow’s milk in it as long as they include a bracket in the list of ingredients that states that the product contains a milk derivative. She also said that “there is a lot of room for shock” when it comes to labeling around the human treatment of animals.

“I had time to look at all of this with a computer and it still took hours,” she said. “I can not imagine trying to make that decision in minutes based on the label.”

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