This guest post is published around the Joint Annual Meeting of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society and the Association for the Study of Food and Society in Madison, WI, occurring June 13-16, 2018. #foodstudies18

By Norah MacKendrick, author of Better Safe Than Sorry: How Consumers Navigate Exposure to Everyday Toxics

Grocery shopping is not for the faint of heart. It involves dodging aggressive grocery-cart-pushers, winning the game of hide-and-seek to find every item on the list, and securing a place in the shortest checkout line. For shoppers on food stamps, grocery shopping also means remembering what items are eligible for benefits while keeping a mental tally of the total to avoid going over budget.

Grocery shopping has become even more complicated as shoppers learn about synthetic chemicals in their processed foods and multiple pesticide residues on their fruits and vegetables. I explore these complexities in my book, Better Safe than Sorry, How Consumers Navigate Exposure to Everyday Toxics. I find that avoiding chemicals in food, personal care products and other consumer items involves reading a lot of labels.

The packages encasing our food have more text and information on them than ever before. In addition to an ingredient list and nutrition facts label, there are logos such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification seal and the Non-GMO Project seal of approval. The so-called clean trend has added even more text to food packages. Clean labels make assurances about things that have not been added to our food—such as beef that is free from hormones and antibiotics or yogurt claiming there are “no toxic pesticides used here.”

The proliferation of labels on our food is connected to major changes to agriculture, food processing and consumer product manufacturing after World War II, when thousands of new chemicals were allowed onto the market without rigorous testing. Today there are approximately 85,000 chemicals registered for use in the United States, yet only a small proportion have been properly screened for their environmental and health effects. This amounts to a major failure on the part of the federal government to protect public health. In response, environmental groups like the Environmental Working Group have launched campaigns to teach shoppers how to read a label and avoid toxic chemicals at the grocery store. Of course, keeping up with this advice involves even more reading.

Who does all of this reading? For the most part, it is women and mothers who view themselves as gatekeepers of family health. As I discovered in my research with mothers in New York City, learning to read a label takes considerable time and effort. And it involves making a lot of choices. For instance, if conventional strawberries contain high levels of pesticide residues should a shopper pay twice the price for certified organic strawberries? Is okay for a toddler to drink organic milk from grain-fed cows, which is sold at the store down the street, or is it worth the time, effort and expense to find a farmer’s market that sells local and organic milk from grass-fed cows? I found that women with higher incomes could resolve these tradeoffs by shopping exclusively at farmers markets, Whole Foods Market and independent health food stores, while low-income women paid with their time by scouring mainstream supermarkets to find the best bargains on organic food, and by making their meals from scratch.

We have a broken regulatory system to thank for complicating the already difficult task of shopping for food. The solution is not to become savvier shoppers or ask for more labels on our food. The answer is to fix the regulatory system so that the food on our plates is safe, healthy and affordable, and hold food and chemical manufacturers accountable for the products they make.