Food labels: Satisfying consumers’ curiosity to know what’s inside

Consumers are curious creatures when it comes to wanting to know “what’s inside” the foods and beverages they’re considering to consume. Whether driven by personal health, diet and nutrition interests and needs or out of concern for sustainable practices, consumers continue to scrutinize food labels for answers.

The FDA and other federal regulators are no strangers to the label reading phenomenon, and while ploddingly slow in terms of keeping abreast of food culture trends, have been busy making changes to nutrition labels and food pyramids hoping to influence the public on their use of freshness date labeling, sodium, sugar and hazy terms like GMO's, healthy and natural.

As with any food behavior, the reasons behind the scrutiny of labels are complex and reflect both involvement and orientation to health and wellness and also food culture itself. Some of the reasons include:

  • Authenticity, transparency and a quest for truth in production: Consumers increasingly want to know the truth behind manufacturing, quality of ingredients, or signals of ethical production
  • Narrative and the story behind the product are closely linked to a desire to know about the “truth” behind production, consumers also want to know who makes the product and where the product comes from
  • Shopping for one’s self or others and the influence of diagnosed and self-diagnosed health conditions; food preferences; religious and dietary restrictions
  • Seeking out or avoiding key ingredients that might be linked to weight management or self-informed nutrition needs, and perceptions of the positive or negative effects of such ingredients on physical or mental health
  • Food safety and freshness concerns that reflect rising consumer interest in fresh products, with a renewed interest in expiration and freshness dates
  • Media and the influence of nutrition research reports or news about imported or tainted products

Consumers who are watching their weight are more likely to read nutrition labels: more than half of consumers (59 percent) say they frequently or almost always read nutrition labels when managing their weight. Even if they aren't being diet-minded, 42% say they still read nutrition labels—underscoring the fact that label reading is in fact, still de rigueur.

Beyond the realm of concerns and curiosities that drive consumers to examine labels, there are also occasions where labels are largely ignored, many of which derive from moments of enjoyment, which may include:

  • Indulgent occasions ("when I splurge, I don't look at anything")
  • Late night snacking and eating
  • Seasonal influences (cookouts, holidays, vacations)
  • Travel (for business or pleasure)
  • Special events (parties, sporting events, dining out)

Consumer orientation to health and wellness is a significant driver behind the "why’s" of label reading and reflects changes afoot in the food and beverage market where consumers are practicing more nuanced health and wellness goals within their everyday diet.

The seven most important elements of the nutrition panel among consumers managing their weight include (in order of importance): calories, amount of sugar, serving size, number of fat grams, amount of sodium, amount of carbohydrates, and amount of protein.

While food culture is progressing past the days of equations made between wellness and foods with claims of “less” (e.g., low fat, low sugar, low salt etc.) and toward equations made between freshness, “whole foods” and healthfulness, the practice of label reading is not declining. New interests in “fresh” equate fully to an increased interest in sourcing transparency, “sell-by” and freshness dates while consumer confusion over GMO’s is leading to increasing interest in GMO labeling.

Label reading 2.0

Going forward, food and beverage standard setters and marketers should be aware that the specifics of what’s labeled have different affinities to different consumers—it just depends where they are on their health and wellness journeys. Communicating, for example, with mid-level health and periphery wellness consumers (who make up the bulk of health and wellness shoppers in food retail) includes emphasizing key health attributes like:

  • Higher in nutrients (e.g., protein, fiber, etc.)
  • Recognizable ingredients (e.g., “made with simple, real ingredients”)
  • No trans-fats and lower in salt
  • Lower in calories (due to fat, carbohydrates or sugars)
  • No added sugars

Front of packaging should tell the consumer what it is; what it does; what attributes make it special and product descriptions should communicate quality via real, natural ingredients and positive nutrition claims (e.g., whole grain oats, etc.). When possible, let the ingredients speak to health claims.

Back panels on packaging should highlight “clean,” short ingredient lists and should highlight the benefits of natural ingredients and offer explanations about why negative ingredients have been left out to make the product safer, tastier, or higher quality. Back panel brand/product narratives that are most effective should highlight any presence of ingredient sourcing (real places, people and traditions), unique varietals (e.g., heirloom tomato juice) or use of small-scale or artisanal production techniques. Additionally, back panels can be educational by explaining the health benefits associated with ingredients.

As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company's associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.

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