Consumers are hungry for health information. But do food package icons, shelf tags and other in-store signs calling out nutrition and health information help them or just confuse them?
It's a critical question for supermarket retailers, since it's at the shelf that shoppers encounter the myriad of messages from manufacturers, retailers, trade and consumer groups that can spur a sale or befuddle shoppers.
There are on-package icons and seals and shelf tags identifying foods that are heart healthy, gluten free, low sodium and rich in whole grains, to name just a few. And there's more to come, with the food industry preparing to launch a national in-store communications campaign, Take A Peak, to promote the government's dietary guidelines.
The value of all these messages depends on the language used, category in question, shopping occasion and the customer's nutritional goals. And there's enough diversity in both cases to cause confusion.
Mark Clemens, director of community marketing for Kulpsville, Pa.-based Clemens Family Markets, said certain customers like informational food labels and trust marks.
"I see people read them," he said. "I think many people are seeking information about what they are consuming, and the labels do help people who are trying to look after their health and their diet. It's becoming a trend."
But the cumulative effect of shelf signs and labels can create a cluttered look, or, as Kathy Neufarth, consumer affairs director for three-store Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton, Ohio, calls it, "sign pollution."
Research by the Hartman Group found that people use labeling differently depending on
how far along they are in adopting a health and wellness lifestyle. While phrases like "high fiber" and "organic" may trigger mainstream consumers to buy the product, the heavily involved wellness shopper would view such claims with skepticism and rely more on the ingredients list itself to make a purchase decision. And sometimes labels are ignored, such as when people are shopping for indulgences or for special events, according to the Hartman Group's 2005 report, Wellness Lifestyle Insights.
Despite research showing many consumers use in-store signs, retailers often use discretion with in-store signs to avoid confusing clutter in the aisles.
Labels like "provides immunity defense" and "low fat" can be misleading if customers don't fully understand the definitions and nuances behind the labels, industry sources said.
"Some people might think that 'low fat' is healthier," Neufarth said. "But over the years, we have come to understand that low fat is not necessarily healthier because what you have to do with low-fat products is add a lot of other ingredients to try to enhance flavor. And that might be ingredients like sugar, artificial ingredients, that aren't necessarily good for everyone."
Other terms, like "healthier" or "better," are vague, Neufarth said. "It becomes harder to pinpoint who the product is healthier for."
The Food and Drug Administration itself may inadvertently contribute to consumer confusion with its grading criteria for nutritional claim labels, which allow manufacturers to make certain health claims short of FDA approval and significant scientific agreement.
One government source who has experience with the language of claims said he had to spend minutes reading an orange juice label to find out if the product was 100% juice.
The product's main claim was that it provided "immunity defense," the source said. "The fact that the product was made with 100% juice was in little tiny letters. That's insanely confusing."
The diversity of people's dietary needs further complicates communication.
Shoppers with specific nutritional needs, such as diabetics or food allergy sufferers, benefit from food labels that help them decide if a given product is good for them, while people with less-specific goals, such as cutting back fat, could be confused if they just read the labels and not the product ingredients, Neufarth said.
There's no one target audience of consumers that needs nutritional guidance, said Dagmar Farr, group vice president of legislative and consumer affairs for the Food Marketing Institute. "We need to look at all of our different audiences - Spanish-speaking consumers, children, diabetics - and find the best vehicle to communicate to each of them."
FMI research shows that, despite greater health and nutrition awareness, half of all consumers say their diet could be healthier, Farr said.
"There is a lot of new information emerging, including the government's MyPyramid program, new allergen labels and new trans fat requirements," Farr said. "We want to get information out that will help consumers figure out what is the right choice for them. But we can't rely on one vehicle to provide that information, which is why, from a grocer's standpoint, you have websites, you have labels, you have signs and brochures."
Research showing that consumers were confused about choosing healthier foods prompted PepsiCo to launch its Smart Spot icon program two years ago. The icon identifies PepsiCo products that meet certain nutritional guidelines.
Others have followed PepsiCo's example. Kraft has its Sensible Solution labeling program that flags better-for-you choices like Crystal Light and Post Shredded Wheat. Unilever recently announced a new on-package logo system, Choices, that will identify foods low in trans fats, saturated fats, sodium and sugar. Others, like ConAgra Foods, use the American Heart Association's heart-check logo on products like its Healthy Choice line.
A recent study commissioned by ConAgra showed 95% of respondents said they would consider quality symbols, seals and trust marks when food shopping. The top symbols and labels consumers look for include whole grains, heart healthy, 0 grams of trans fat, organic and kosher. More than 1,000 adults participated in the survey, conducted by Ipsos U.S. Express.
The value of labels comes down to their perceived integrity and ability to help consumers make good food choices, said ConAgra Foods spokesman Garth Neuffer. "In general, consumers are looking for labels that are clear and informative, highlight standards they care about, and help fulfill their individual nutritional or dietary needs and desires. And, of course, they must also meet all appropriate regulatory guidelines."
Still, the lack of uniformity of such systems has raised concerns. A report last summer by the Institute of Medicine, which advises the government on health issues, called for an industrywide rating system and labeling that consistently conveys nutritional quality.
PepsiCo in May began trying to get other manufacturers to join it in creating a uniform linguistic standard for a nutritional trust mark, recognizing that while it has no evidence that people are confused by the trust marks, the FDA has strict guidelines defining health claims on packaging, said PepsiCo spokeswoman Lynn Markley.
Lance Friedmann, Kraft's senior vice president for global health and wellness and new category development, said that while manufacturers have different communications programs, the underlying nutritional standards are similar. But he added that the ideal solution for the consumer would be a unified system, despite the difficulty in getting companies to agree on a single standard.
Retailers have their own labeling programs.
Clemens Family Markets has bib tags that hang from shelves to identify natural and organic products. The chain has 1,000 or so such tags per store, spokesman Mark Clemens estimated.
To keep stores from looking cluttered, Clemens had the bib tags made in the same size as its sales tags. The tags for natural products are reddish brown, while the organic tags are green.
"People are more aware of chemicals in food and they are concerned about what they are consuming, so the signs are useful to them," Clemens said.
Safeway has just started to roll out products bearing new on-package icons that address a variety of nutritional claims including not just sodium, fat, gluten and allergen content, but also whether a product is dolphin safe and total servings per package.
"Giving people information at the point of decision is very important," said Michael Minasi, Safeway's senior vice president of marketing.
Minasi said Safeway recognizes that there is "always a concern that in your well-intentioned attempt to provide as much information as possible, you could create an environment that's a little bit too cluttered." Safeway manages that concern "by being cognizant of the fact that people can only absorb so much," he said.
Dorothy Lane Markets curbs the number of its stores' shelf signs, which include "Honestly Better" signs that flag various products throughout the store, shelf liners to identify integrated organic and gluten-free products, and "Eat Real Food" stickers on store-brand products that are minimally processed.
When even nutrition fact panels can be misleading, however, perhaps the best retailers can do is encourage shoppers to read the product's ingredients.
For example, even if a product contains up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, the manufacturer can still claim the product is trans fat free.
"You can have all kinds of claims in a label," Neufarth said, "but the real truth is in the ingredient list."
On Their Minds
Information on fat, sugar and cholesterol are most important to shoppers.
Ingredient; Importance to households on diets; Importance to all households
Fat: 64%; 51%
Trans fat: 56%; 46%
Sugar: 57%; 42%
Cholesterol: 48%; 42%
Salt/sodium: 44%; 39%
Whole grains: 49%; 39%
Calories: 49%; 38%
Vitamins/minerals: 41%; 37%
Fiber: 38%; 37%
Chemical additives: 30%; 35%
Source: FMI U.S. Grocery Shopping Trends 2006
Health Claim Update
The most reliable health claims are those that meet the Food and Drug Administration's standard of significant scientific agreement. Since September 2003, the FDA has been considering "qualified health claims" that may be allowed with less SSA.
Qualified health claims differ from the SSA health claims in that they must be accompanied by a disclaimer or otherwise qualified. The wording of the claim and use of enforcement discretion also differ.
The FDA last month posted new guidelines as part of the process to standardize the qualified health claims. In that guidance, FDA specified qualifying language for the three levels of scientific support below the SSA standard. An A grade would mean that "significant scientific evidence" supports the claim, while a D would mean that "very limited and preliminary scientific research" suggests support for the claim.
In the meantime, the agency plans to review qualified health claim petitions on a case-by-case basis.