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What is an Unregulated and Potentially Misleading Label Worth? The case of “Natural”-Labelled Groceries

Butler, JuliannaM., Vossler, ChristianA.
Environmental and resource economics 2018 v.70 no.2 pp. 545-564
adults, artificial flavorings, foods, groceries, preservatives, public policy, willingness to pay, United States
Motivated by a multitude of lawsuits and considerable public policy debate in the U.S., this study provides insight on the demand effects for an unregulated and potentially misleading phrase found on many grocery labels: “all natural”, and its common variations. Using a targeted sample of adult grocery shoppers, we employ an incentive-compatible approach to elicit the willingness to pay for a variety of “natural”-labelled food products, along with their counterfactual, standard-labelled counterparts. We find that consumers are willing to pay 20% more on average for “natural” products. Using elicited information on consumer beliefs, we find that this premium decreases when “natural” signals no artificial flavors or preservatives, and increases when consumers believe that “natural” means GMO-free. Interestingly, for those indicating that the “natural” designation is meaningless, they are willing to pay about one-third less for products labelled this way.