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Eat This or Die

Donna SuttonDonna Sutton

Posted on Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Coffee, wine, beer and chocolate have long been considered vices, but recent studies reveal their health benefits: Coffee cuts skin cancer risk and lowers women’s depression; beer can help women protect against osteoporosis; and red wine and cocoa antioxidants could boost metabolism and benefit the heart, respectively.

Even so, consumers should have enough sense to not overindulge in traditionally unhealthy products. But, how do they react when a study reports health claims of nutrients without an existing bias?

The overly-trusting consumer may run out to buy every product with ginger in the ingredient list after reading that it reduces colon inflammation and cancer risk. Suddenly, CPG manufacturers of ginger-snaps have some decisions to make. Should they attempt to capitalize on these claims with front-of-packaging ingredient information?

Packaging claims have been a hot issue lately, as two camps of thought sparked a great debate. The Grocery Manufacturers Association’s (GMA) “Facts Up Front” rivals the Institute of Medicine (IoM) over what should be included in front-of-package nutritional facts.

IoM believes displaying calories and a simple star rating will sufficiently inform consumers of nutritional level, while the Facts Up Front Label will present calories, total fat, sodium, sugars, and two “nutrients to encourage” for the manufacturer to choose.

These systems ultimately have the same goal: help consumers make healthier choices. But striking a balance between information overload and ease of use is key.

Time Healthland featured a University of Minnesota study suggesting that people don’t actually look at the same nutrition information on food packages as they claim. Researchers used an eye-tracking device with a group of designated shoppers to reveal which components of nutrition labels participants paid attention.

“Although 26% of people self-reported that they almost always look at Nutrition Facts labels at the grocery store, 37% of them actually noticed at least one component of the label for almost all food items,” according to the article.

But, customers seem to be unaware of which components they actually noticed. There were large discrepancies between self-reports and eye-tracking data. While 33% said they looked at calorie count, only 9% actually did. In addition, 31% reported they paid attention to total fat content, 24% said they looked at sugar content, and 26% said they looked at serving size, when in reality, only 1% studied each of these components.

It will be interesting to see if this data changes when front-of-package nutrition facts become more prominent, as they’re expected to do in 2012. Will consumers trust only a standardized system, such as Facts Up Front or IoM’s, or can CPG manufacturers continue to play up key healthy ingredients in a less structured manner?  What’s your take?

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3 Responses for "Eat This or Die"

  1. Laura-Lynn Freck January 4th, 2012 at 11:48 AM

    I think Manufacturers need to proceed with caution on front of package claims. In the same week that there are news articles trumping the benefits of certain ingredients, there are additional articles claiming the reverse for the same ingredients. Packaging has the potential to become comically muddled depictions if Manufacturers try too hard to make sure the latest claim trend is captured. Instead, it would be nice, if there were uniform measurement criteria to aid in decision making, based on overall wellness of the item. The facts up front idea is a good one, as long as the claims being shown mean something to an overall diet and are not just based on the latest food claim trend.

  2. Donna Sutton January 5th, 2012 at 5:41 PM

    Laura Lynn:
    It’s totally overwhelming – the health-benefit claims and trends that are touted out there! I for one have a dozen food allergies and it’s very difficult and confusing to find the right foods, labeled or not!

    The uniformity of labeling is a must, but ‘what’ to label is the conundrum here I believe. For what type of ingredient and health benefit or claim? There are so many things going on related to health and claims – diabetes, gluten-free, fat-free, trans-fats, you name it. So many activists and needs, I think we’re all just going to need an app that allows us to scan the barcode and list out all the ingredients before we purchase the item! OY!

    Thanks for your feedback, you are so right!

  3. Mark Eastwood January 6th, 2012 at 5:37 PM

    I have to agree with Laura on “front of package claims.” Its my experience that many consumers don’t read more than the front label and fail to realize that while there might be moderate benefits to some people its not a substitute for good judgment. I have a sister-in-law that ate yogurt covered pretzals becase “its yogurt and therefore healthy” when the reality was a huge amount of sugar in each serving. She failed to read the serving size and nutritional information to make a better decision. In fact the sugar was so high, I’d argue that it out weighed the potential benfits that are associated to yogurt.

    Secondly, I think people don’t have enough detail about the potential claim of benefit or how / if the claims are verified in any way.