"Free-Range Popcorn” – A Food Label, From our Family Farm to Your Kitchen
March 17, 2017
When we first started thinking about sharing our specialty, hull-less popcorn beyond our circle of friends,we quickly realized we had a lot to learn. How could we best communicate about our product on the grocery store shelves? We wanted consumers to know about our family farm and the unique qualities of our popcorn. We wanted them to know the great pride and efforts we take to produce a quality product. And, of course, we had to let them know the nutritional and key qualities as required by the FDA.
Four years and many eye-opening lessons later, we have learned quite a bit. As we maneuvered the food labeling process, we contacted a nutritional lab. Since popcorn’s primary nutrients--carbohydrates, fiber and protein--are largely the same, FDA allows a common nutritional label. This saved us great cost as a small family farm and we had a label in no time. Due to the extra cost, we opted not to test our popcorn specifically, but over time we want to test to see if our popcorn does in fact have higher mineral content--that would be one explanation for the stronger, better taste. But in terms of food safety and nutritional content, the USDA approved popcorn label fit the bill and that’s how we’ve started.
All labels require, among many things, an ingredient list. To this day, the quality we love the most about our nutritional label is the ingredients listing-- one ingredient and one ingredient only-- straight from our fields-- Red Popcorn or Blue Popcorn depending on the package.
One of the areas we struggled with on our new packaging was whether or not to label our popcorn non-GMO. All popcorn is non-GMO. To date popcorn has not been modified and whether you purchase microwave popcorn or kernels such as ours, all popcorn is non-GMO. With our original packaging we opted not to label our popcorn non-GMO. Our rational? Why further mislead consumers into thinking that some popcorn is genetically modified and others are not? It’s just like labeling a banana non-GMO. Bananas have not been modified so why are some labeled GMO and others not at the grocery store? It’s just down right confusing and honestly, unfair to consumers.
Today, after answering many questions about our popcorn being non-GMO or not, with the roll out of our new packaging, we have added the non-GMO label to our packaging. Consumers want to know, so we are glad to share. And when you ask us about this we’ll be honest with you-- all popcorn is non-GMO, not just ours. We’re not here to mislead a consumer into purchasing our product over another because of a label. Our motto from day one-- non-GMO label or not-- quality is key. Our farm is open to all technology and we proudly provide what you want most, which is a non-GMO product. But we want you to enjoy our popcorn because it tastes awesome, not because you’re worried about the non-GMO label. Quality matters more than labels!
Beyond just the GMO labeling controversy, food labels can get tricky for lots of reasons. And it’s unfortunate because the point of such labels are ultimately to help consumers make educated choices. But the marketing side of food labeling has confusion too, not just what you see as a consumer. Thinking about our popcorn, a consumer looking at our package on the shelf could ask these questions. And we as farmers before it leaves the farm often ask ourselves the same questions, but from a perspective of how we should market our farm: How much is relevant? How much is ethical?
Is it non-GMO project verified?
Popcorn is, by definition, non-GMO. Do we really need to pay for the special graphic with a little butterfly and check mark to make that more true?
Is it heart-healthy?
Is it worth the marketing dollars to promote this for a product that is one of the healthiest carbs you can ingest?
Is it sustainable?
There’s no true definition for this accepted by anyone or any entity-- it reflects our fifth generation farm’s reverence for the past and future of our farm, but it can’t be “certified”... or can it?
Is it natural?
Again, where’s the true definition? We feel it’s appropriate since our popcorn tastes great without requiring excessive amounts of seasoning or coating. But it’s not anything that can be “certified.”
Is it certified whole-grain?
Like “non-GMO,” popcorn is defined as a whole grain. Since you’re ingesting the seed coat of the popcorn after cooking, you’re getting all the whole-grain perks. But is it worth the marketing budget to pay for the certification emblem on your package?
Is it vegan friendly?
None of us are vegan, but we have had many vegans happily accept free samples from us. Would it be misleading to put this label on the package? We haven’t seen any official certification process for vegan friendly products from FDA or USDA, so would it be fair to make this statement?
Is it kosher?
Technically, we would need a rabbi to certify our product. But on a strict Biblical view, our popcorn is absolutely kosher and thus, why would we need to pay for any certification? How important is it to certain consumers that we certify a grain product as kosher when it lacks the features that would make it unclean, like meat?
Is it antibiotic-free?
Obviously we aren’t treating plants with antibiotics, so we feel it would be unethical to place this label. But it begs the question, why is the antibiotic-free label such a big deal in the livestock sector? If by law none of your meat, eggs or dairy can be sold with any antibiotics, why is this now a marketing thing? It wouldn’t be any different than us placing this on a bag of popcorn (disclaimer--there are real concerns about over-treating livestock with antibiotics and giving rise to “Superbugs,” but our farm is of the opinion that folks that go to the doctor for sniffles are as much to blame in that argument).
Is it free-range popcorn?
To the most ridiculous point on labeling confusion, and our blog title, our popcorn is technically “free-range.” None of our farms have fences so the popcorn “could” uproot and walk away any time they wanted. As absurd as this sounds, I ask here how ethical some of these labels are on our food. Technical truths, if meant to scare individuals into a purchase, are not fair game in our opinion. Perhaps more scary still, if we did put “Free-Range Popcorn” on our bag, would that increase sales? That would indicate that many people are buying on labels out of fear (the corollary is that companies are unfortunately marketing on fear too).
While our popcorn fits all of these categories, we don’t want our packaging to turn into the dashboard of a NASCAR or a shiny billboard along the Las Vegas strip. At some point, there are too many labels and we start looking at the features instead of the actual product. We hope consumers pay attention to all these aspects of our popcorn-- naturally a whole grain, gluten free, energy-producing complex carbohydrates, contains fiber, naturally low in fat and calories and no artificial additives or preservatives, and is sugar-free.
Now that’s a super snack straight from our fields that you can feel good about sharing with your family. But we hope these features are taken in totality and with respect to an awesome product taste and experience, not just based upon one feature or label category.
That’s why on our family farm, we love simplicity. Enjoy our popcorn because it comes from healthy farming so you can harvest comfort. Great memories from great food. Don’t get hung up on too many labels.
Have a question about labels and what’s on our packaging? Send us an email or give us a call. You can find our cell phone numbers front and center on our website. Most of the time we’ll answer right away but if not we’ll call you back. That’s another thing about our label over others-- you can go straight to the source rather than through a corporate call center. And if our farmer says he can’t hear you and has to call you back, well he’s probably on a tractor and will call you back soon.
Originally posted on the Pilot Knob Comforts blog.
Karlie and her husband Andrew have one son, Ryker, and farm with Andrew’s parents, Lynn and Sally Bowman, in addition to serving farmers through insurance and consulting enterprises.
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