In a nation newly concerned about dietary issues ranging from carbohydrates to obesity, produce marketers are in the enviable position of redefining the term "slim margins." After all, fresh fruits and vegetables are among the biggest winners in America's newfound desire for overall health and wellness.
While produce has always been at the top of any healthy lifestyles list, it seems only recently that consumers have rediscovered how big a role produce can play. What's more, they seem more interested in getting their good nutrition from whole foods, rather than supplements or replacement diets.
A survey of nearly 2,500 U.S. adults conducted exclusively for SN by Harris Interactive, via its QuickQuery online omnibus service, found that 71% -- an overwhelming majority -- indicated they would consider getting specific nutrients directly from the source, rather than a supplement (59%) or a prepackaged food item containing an ingredient that includes the nutrient, such as a cereal mixed with dried fruit (21%).
More specifically, when asked from which of the three sources they'd actually prefer to get the nutrients, 60% stated they would opt to consume the foods in which the nutrients naturally occur; 34% chose supplements; and 5% preferred nutrient-containing prepackaged foods.
Clearly, the consumers polled indicated they want to go to the source -- a decision that could have important ramifications for the produce industry as the Food and Drug Administration implements a program of updated dietary guidelines and new science-based labeling that allows consumers to purchase grade-based produce items ranked by the validity of the claims being made.
The Consumer Health Information for Better Nutrition Initiative permits marketers a pair of options: They can use a generalized, non-specific statement attesting to the benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables in reducing the risk of some cancers and chronic illness; or they can submit applications to promote specific nutrients in a produce item, such as lycopene in tomatoes, as a natural way to reduce the risk of prostate cancer.
Pursuing the latter choice is not a simple process, and requires the submission of research, scientific profiles and related materials before the FDA issues approval in the form of a four-level letter or number grade, reflecting the strength of the evidence as it relates to the health claim.
"[Claims] have to be approved by the FDA, whereas guidelines, as long as they're truthful, do not need to be approved," said Linda Brugler, nutrition marketing manager for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del.
The initiative will improve the way retailers market produce. Ed Tommack, vice president, produce merchandising/procurement for Albertsons, Boise, Idaho, said that this is where strong relationships between vendors and retailers are crucial because the promotions are becoming more high-minded and science-based in nature -- and require greater levels of knowledge all around...
"We use all of the traditional marketing material to promote the health benefits of produce, such as advertising signs, posters, tear pads, pamphlets and the like," he said. "In addition to that, though, our customers can access our Web site for more information about produce. Our Web site also has a link to www.aboutproduce.com," the industry's primary repository of consumer information.
Mainstream retailers are learning to become more interactive with health-minded consumers as well. At Albertsons, a dietician program places nutrition experts throughout the company, and schedules in-store education programs for customers.
"We [also] have a very serious training program for our associates, including a computer-guided educational session with product identification activities," Tommack continued. "We have books available on the floor for our associates' reference that are easily accessible and copied into a retail version available for the customer."
Some grower/shippers provide the national chain with signage, tear pads or recipe cards containing health-benefit and nutritional information, he said.
The work of getting that FDA-approved health sticker on the product, however, will fall on the shoulders of grower/shippers. They will be the ones actually charged with seeking agency approval by submitting a petition and the required research.
The California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, Calif., is one of many trade associations representing grower/shippers eager to find a marketing niche under the new program. Mary DeGroat, the CSC's marketing communications manager, told SN the organization's "Red Edge" campaign, launched earlier this year, plays up a number of phytonutrients that could fit in perfectly with the FDA initiative.
"We're already bringing together researchers to determine what the next steps should be to build on what we already know about strawberries and to meet those guidelines," she said, noting that eight medium berries are considered a daily serving. "Strawberries specifically play into that with their high level of fiber, 160% more vitamin C, and high levels of folate, potassium and antioxidants."
Another trade organization, the California Pistachio Commission, is already marketing its nuts under a qualified health claim that reads: "Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease."
Donna Gavello, CPC's communications manager, said the pistachio industry didn't wait for the FDA to unveil its program, but submitted paperwork and research last year.
"That's how important it was to us," she said. "And as more research is done on tree nuts, we can submit that. There's already been 30 pieces of research done among all the tree nut commodity boards. We can always go back to FDA in the future to get a greater claim."
In support of the new classification, the CPC and its grower/members developed a whole new advertising campaign.
"The retail trade has been very supportive and interested," Gavello said. "We've shipped nearly 200,000 brochures to date, and have a brand new display bin that ties in with the campaign, as well as all support POS materials."
Indeed, consumers will have plenty of information available in their stores from which they can make solid purchasing decisions. First, they have to decide whether or not to pursue this course. To that end, SN's poll asked consumers what they did to improve their diet. The four options were: decreasing consumption of certain types of foods containing undesirable ingredients; increasing consumption of foods with desirable ingredients; taking vitamins/nutritional supplements; and using orally administered diet/weight-loss products.
The majority, 59%, said they denied themselves certain foods; 51% said they took some sort of vitamin/supplement; 34% increased their intake of certain foods; and 10% used weight-loss products.
The poll found that those American adults who increased food consumption to get specific nutrients were also significantly more likely to ingest vitamin/supplements (66%). The connection presents a possible cross-merchandising opportunity for retailers who might pursue a strategy to offer the original source product and, perhaps, a matching supplement in the same or adjacent displays.
The survey also found a correlation between the number of fresh produce servings per day and the likelihood that the person would opt for one of the stated actions to improve diet. In all cases, those people who consumed three or more servings per day were most likely to either increase/decrease consumption of certain foods or take nutritional supplements.
Interestingly, whether respondents believe or disbelieve health claims made about nutrients contained in fruits and vegetables has little impact on their likelihood to take these actions. There was a slightly more pronounced difference between "believers" and "non-believers" when it came to increasing consumption (38% vs. 32%). The results indicate that while important, the health news regarding phytonutrients is only one consideration taken into account as consumers build their diets.
Such variables can help marketers and retailers by stressing qualities like taste, convenience and versatility, without having to rely solely on health claims. For example, high fat levels kept the California Avocado Commission, Santa Ana, Calif., from participating in health-related programs like 5 A Day. Focusing on other attributes was a must. Jan DeLeyser, CAC's president, noted it was scientific research that uncovered there are different types of fats -- and that avocados contain monounsaturated, or "healthy," fat.
"Ten to 15 years ago, the avocado had a bad rap. And through science and information programs we've been aggressively pursuing in recent years, there's so much research about the good fats and the benefits of them, and that's what the avocado's all about," she said. "Now we've gone hard to the good fat message, and we've seen a lot of success with that."
The evidence regarding monounsaturated fats was enough to convince the 5 A Day campaign to lift its exclusion rule against avocados, and the FDA dietary guidance will allow the CAC to truly integrate various messages into one that's more focused and inclusive.
"This is just an added benefit to raise the awareness of an item that has exceptional nutritional value," DeLeyser said. "We've got a nutrition committee that was formed a number of years ago to evaluate and conduct research relating to monounsaturated fats, and we've incorporated all of that into our recipes that go to consumers and in our public relations campaign."
PERCENT OF AMERICAN ADULTS EATING "X" NUMBER OF SERVINGS OF FRESH FRUITS AND VEGETABLES PER DAY, BY GENDER
Question: How many servings of fresh fruits and vegetables do you usually eat per day? [One (1), Two (2), Three (3), Four (4), Five (5), Six to seven (6.5), Eight to ten (9), More than ten (11), None (0)] - Numbers in parentheses used to calculate mean.
Question: Which of the following, if any, do you currently do to improve your diet? Please check all that apply. (Respondents could check more than one).
PERCENT OF AMERICANS TAKING SPECIFIC ACTIONS AFTER HEARING HEALTH CLAIMS FOR SPECIFIC FRUITS AND VEGETABLES, BY GENDER
Question: Health claims are sometimes made for nutrients contained in specific fruits and vegetables. For example, tomatoes contain lycopene, which is said to prevent cancer, and strawberries contain folate, which is said to help reduce risk/severity of heart disease. After hearing positive health claims made for specific fruits and vegetables, have you ever...? Please check all that apply. (Respondents could check more than one.)
Stopped eating some varieties of fruits and vegetables to include those associated with health claims:
Harris Interactive fielded the seven-question study from Sept. 4 to 8, 2003, via its QuickQuery online omnibus service, interviewing a nationwide sample of 2,467 U.S. adults. In theory, with a probability sample of this size, one can say with 95 percent certainty that the results have a statistical precision of plus or minus 3.0 percentage points of what they would be if the entire adult population had been polled with complete accuracy. This is not a probability sample. Data were weighted to be representative of the total U.S. adult population on the basis of region, age within gender, education, household income and race/ethnicity.