Navigating the grocery store aisle is challenging for many consumers—especially those who want to buy the most nutritious food.
Food manufacturers and distributors cover their boxes, cans, and bottles of processed foods with labels like “organic,” “all natural,” and “no sugar added” to suggest that their food has certain health benefits. But these labels are intended to improve product sales, not necessarily help consumers make healthy food choices. And when food marketing labels seem to contradict the labels mandated by the Food and Drug Administration—which requires packages to include the amount of food, nutrition facts, ingredients, and allergen statements, among other things (ESHA Research, 2019)—grocery shopping becomes even more complicated. In a recent consumer survey, 80 percent of respondents said this conflicting information confuses them and causes them to doubt their food choices (International Food Information Council Foundation, 2018).
Among the most misunderstood food marketing labels are “non-GMO,” “natural,” and “organic.” In a representative survey conducted by GMO Answers (2018), 69 percent of consumers could not define GMO (genetically modified organism). Organic foods are often credited with health and nutrition benefits that the food does not have (Noone, 2019). The natural label is not regulated at all - and has various meanings depending on who is using it (Nosowitz, 2019).
These are the three labels we decided to focus on for this project, “Navigating the Grocery Store Aisle: Understanding Food Marketing Labels,” made possible by a grant from New Technologies in Agricultural Extension (NTAE) program and the Extension Foundation. NTAE is a process designed to accelerate our work, and our goal is to increase consumers’ understanding of these food marketing labels and give them the power to make more confident food buying decisions by curating and creating science-based resources, including an interactive learning activity as the primary educational tool.
We created a GMO working group in 2017 that several members of our NTAE team are actively involved with. We wanted to further develop our messages and initiatives and were looking for new methods to reach audiences. Several of our team members were interested in gaming as an educational outreach tool. UConn Extension educators previously worked with the Learning Games Lab at New Mexico State University (NMSU) on a USDA AFRI grant funded project and our group wanted an opportunity to collaborate with them.
Our NTAE project goals are to:
- Clarify consumers common misconceptions on food labels (non-GMO, natural, organic), and
- Empower consumers in making confident grocery shopping decisions based on their needs.
We worked with our NTAE catalysts, Chuck Hibberd and Scott Reed, to create a backward plan for our project. This process created a roadmap for us to follow and ensured we had a template for accelerating our project and accomplishing our objectives within the NTAE project year.
Although our team members were all familiar with each other, this was the first time this particular group worked together. Once we had a backward plan, our team had a discussion on our goal and the responsibilities we needed to complete to finish this project. Team members identified areas of the project they were interested in working on or leading based on expertise and capacity. Then, we worked with the services provided by the NTAE project to build and enhance our work.
Our team began the project with an idea of creating a game that helped consumers understand non-GMO food labels in the grocery store. Knowing when to care about food marketing labels and when they could safely be ignored was our primary objective. During one of our initial meetings with the NMSU Learning Games Lab they discussed unintended consequences of games - and how if we created a game that was only about GMOs it might cause our target audience to become more concerned.
Consumers misunderstand at least 19 different food marketing labels that our team identified during a brainstorming session. Due to the constraints of our budget and the project year we decided to focus on creating content for three food labels. We shifted our process to include natural and organic labels in addition to the non-GMO label. Our team chose to focus on processed foods - or the center of the grocery store aisle with the labels we selected.
Once we identified these three food labels, we researched and curated common myths and facts about each of these food labels. We listed the key concepts that consumers should understand about each label. A key point for our team is that we are pro-science - we are not trying to sway the consumer to be for or against any food label. Rather, our goal is to have the consumer make an informed decision.
Next, our team had a brainstorming session on the game narrative and our vision for how a player would interact with the game. We identified key components that we want included in the game. These include that it be highly visual and accessible to all audiences. Accessibility elements we discussed were ADA compliant, bilingual (Spanish and English to match our program audiences) and provide the ability to connect with limited Internet access.
We carefully crafted the communication messages used throughout the game and educational materials to build trust and rapport with our audiences by providing science-based information. Our original vision was that the interactive learning activity guides consumers through an experience that helps them answer questions they have about food marketing labels.
We completed a design jam session with NMSU, where we pitched our ideas to their team. We met with the NMSU team several times during the weeklong process, and at the end of the week they shared the game prototype with us for Unpeeled: The Case Files of Maya McCluen. The player becomes Maya McCluen in the game, a detective-type character who helps a consumer with a question on the non-GMO food marketing label on a bottle of orange juice in the grocery store. Maya helps the consumer understand the food marketing label by collecting clues through research at the library, talking with an orange farmer, and a registered dietitian in the grocery store.
Our team is currently testing the game prototype with our target audiences. We invite you to test the game and provide your feedback.
This link will take you to the game, after which there is a short survey. Our goal is to learn what you think about the game, including what you did and didn't like. The game and survey should only take 20 minutes and your input will be used to improve the game. Play the game and take the survey at https://unpeeled.nmsu.edu/.
The game will be available for our audiences and use in your programs this summer. Join our email list for the game release announcement email Stacey.Stearns@uconn.edu.