The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) recent announcement that it is making changes to the required Nutrition Facts label on food products has focused a lot of new attention on food labels and how they communicate information.
The FDA said the changes would make it easier for consumers to understand how many calories they are consuming and what kind of nutrients the product is delivering. For one thing, the label updates serving size requirements to reflect how much people really eat.
“Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family,” said First Lady Michelle Obama, who has also crusaded for revised marketing guidelines for processed foods. “So this is a big deal, and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.”
While generally supportive of the FDA update, the food industry nonetheless is promoting its own nutrition label. A week after the FDA announcement, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) announced a promotional campaign to build awareness of its voluntary label on the front of food products. The Facts Up Front label shows what the manufacturer believes to be the key nutrient information, which is also found on the back.
In addition, manufacturers usually put information on their packaging as part of their marketing. If a product is “fat-free,” for example, it will say so on the label. Is this information overload or do consumers find this to be helpful when they select food items? A recent poll of consumers suggests some information is helpful and some not so much.
A mid-February survey conducted by the Harris Poll found that the nutrition claims that must meet the highest levels of regulatory scrutiny seem to be the ones valued most by consumers. One or two of those claims, however, may be resulting in some confusion, the survey found.
Consumers appear to find the word “fresh” on a food package particularly helpful when shopping. Seventy-three percent mentioned that as an important factor and “fresh,” as it turns out, is a pretty reliable claim. Only products that have never been frozen or warmed and which contain no preservatives can qualify as “fresh.”
A majority of consumers in the survey also put stock in products claiming to be “low” in something – like sodium or cholesterol. The word “free,” when attached to words like “fat” and “cholesterol,” also resonates.
Respondents in the poll were more skeptical of the “healthy” claim, with 47% saying it wasn't helpful. In fact, to use “healthy” on a label the food inside has to meet strict nutritional standards. Also, products displaying this claim need to have at least 10% of the recommended daily value for a range of nutrients.
A large majority – 76% – find the description “made with,” such as whole grains or real fruit, to be a helpful selection guide, but here the majority of consumers are also mistaken. Under current regulations that description can go on products that contain only small amounts of the advertised substance.
Similarly, consumers in the survey said they found the description “natural” to be helpful. But “natural” doesn't tell you a lot about the product either, because the FDA has never established an official definition of what that is, exactly.
The question remains, however, about how much influence any of these labels or descriptions have on what consumers put in their shopping carts. When the survey gets to the bottom line, it's all about the bottom line.
What does it cost?
When asked to select the overriding consideration when deciding between food products at the grocery store, roughly half of those questioned – 49% – said the price of the product is the ultimate deciding factor.
Nutrition shows up as the second consideration, with 29% saying they reach for a low-fat or fat-free item. The percentages of those most concerned about calories, sodium and sugar are in the single digits.