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There is a subtle difference between labeling something as "soy-free" and labeling something as "contains soy". Which is better?
When "soy-free" is written on the outside of a package, it is easy to figure out if the contents inside contain soy. Since the product is directly labeled, we know that there is no soy. Similarly, it is also straightforward to determine that a product labeled as "contains soy" will include soy in its ingredient list. These are both simplistic cases where the product itself is labeled, but these labeling strategies have an impact on any unlabeled food around them.
Imagine a scenario where you are checking the ingredients of several foods one after another. The first three packages all say "soy-free", but then the fourth package is blank and doesn't say "soy-free" or "contains soy". What do you do? In these situations, we have to assume that the fourth food contains soy. Using "soy-free" on food labeling creates a presumption that any food which is not labeled with the phrase "soy-free" will contain soy. On the other hand, using the "contains soy" label presumes that all non-labeled food is soy-free, creating an 'innocent until proven guilty' mentality. In a room full of "contains soy" labels, any unlabeled food can be assumed to be soy-free.
On products with full ingredient labels, this isn't too big of a problem as you can always check the ingredient list of each individual product, but this labeling question becomes a much bigger concern in situations where food is labeled for allergens but all the ingredients are not provided, such as a buffet. Contrary to what you might think, our preference for labeling in these uncertain ingredient situations is for food to say "soy-free", as it provides a guaranteed assurance that soy is not present. Since we always presume that soy is present unless otherwise indicated, we never actually assume that any non-labeled food is soy-free.
Both labeling strategies can be effective, but we prefer to find food specifically identified as "soy-free". We also keep our eye open for the Beyond Soy Certification to know that a food is soy-free. Have you ever struggled to determine if a food was soy-free or not?