Michelle Brisebois looks into the reasons behind consumers’ desire to know more about the food they eat.
Time’s up. December 12, 2005 is the deadline for many of you (those businesses with annual sales of over $1-million) to ensure your nutrition labelling is up to snuff – and it’s upon us. By mid-December, packaged food products sold in Canada must conform to the new nutrition labelling standards (with some exceptions). Standardized labelling will allow consumers to see at a glance what we’re about to consume. No more mystery, no more kidding ourselves. So why now? We’ve been largely and blissfully ignorant as to the nutritional details of our meals for centuries. Now that the consumer is getting this information, how will it affect their eating habits?
The nutrition labelling regulations were announced in 2002, with revisions released the following year. A detailed summary (along with a list of “frequently asked questions”) can be found at www.inspection.gc.ca/english/fssa/labeti/ nutrition-part1e.shtml. Although Canada has been slowly moving towards a standardized method of nutrition labelling for some time, the low carbohydrate dieting craze seems to have put the push on to change. At the diet’s peak in popularity, over 1,000 products had been launched featuring “low carb” claims on the label – often in the product’s name itself. The new standards will not allow any such claims and will identify the nutritional content as a reflection of a serving size and as a percentage of a recommended daily allowance. Businesses with less than one million dollars in sales between December 2001 and December 2002 have a grace period of two more years to comply (until December 2007). Food items that aren’t packaged, such as fruits and vegetables, or food made and consumed on premises (restaurants and bakeries) do not have to label their products – however, some items may require labels. Though we may breathe a sigh of relief because our products are exempt from the labelling regulations, the regulations will still have an impact on our businesses. We need to understand what’s driving the desire to know what we’re eating and what consumers will do with the information.
Canadian society is aging, but not elderly. With the lion’s share of consumers residing in their forties and fifties, it’s natural that health would become a hot topic. The research shows, however, that that’s not the only reason people are pushing for more disclosure. This trend is also driven by fear regarding food safety and by a lack of disposable time.
Ipsos Reid reports that more than ever before, consumers are linking health to food consumption. In 1997 only 36 per cent of Canadians reported changing their diets. By 2002 that number had more than doubled to 75 per cent, mostly women. The number one reason for making this change was health (58 per cent), with losing weight in second place (22 per cent).
The food/health link has been a top media story, especially over the last few years as books like “Fast Food Nation” and the film “Supersize Me” have garnered much attention. There was also 9/11.
After the terrorist attacks of 2001, there was heavy media focus on food supply safety. Canadians also had mad cow disease and the Walkerton water contamination tragedy to contend with. Fortunately, Canadians have solid faith in some sectors of our food supply, with 80 per cent of us indicating that we believe the food in our grocery stores is safe (Ipsos Reid). It is imperative that we maintain this perception, since this same study found that 53 per cent of Canadians have boycotted a food that they didn’t believe to be safe and for 43 per cent, that boycott was permanent. Food safety becomes an even greater challenge when so many food items are now eaten off premise and operators can’t control how the consumer stores the food (or for how long) before it’s consumed. Dashboard dining may be popular but it has its risks.
Perhaps the most interesting factor driving the trend towards healthy eating is the “Great Canadian Time Crunch.” The 40s tend to be peak earning years, with many baby boomers holding professional positions that are challenging and time consuming. Competitive by nature, we want our “trophy kids” to excel too, so weeknights are typically booked solid with activities. Since disposable income isn’t a huge problem, we are a nation that eats out. Fast food sales have skyrocketed.
We don’t even get out of our cars anymore, just pull on up to the window and within minutes, we’re chowing down with one hand and pulling into the hockey rink with the other. Here’s the rub. The consumer wants to order, receive and even consume their food quickly but that doesn’t mean they let the food industry off of the hook for providing fast, tasty options that don’t compromise their health. They desire something consumed in haste but prepared with care. Ipsos Reid reports that when asked, “who is responsible for rising obesity?” half of respondents pointed the finger at the food industry, not individual consumers. Of these respondents, 25 per cent strongly agreed with this line of thought.
The United States has more experience with nutrition labelling and we do know from their studies that consumer behaviour does shift once it’s introduced. People change their minds about buying certain foods after reading the label. Seventy-two per cent of consumers in the U.S. rated the new labelling system higher and felt it was easier to understand. Label use was significantly associated with lower fat intake (The impact of the NLEA on consumers: Levy, Derby 1996).
Even if you are exempt from the nutrition labelling regulations, it’s probable that consumers will be comparing your products in their minds to packaged goods they perceive as being similar. Consider enhancing your product line with some options that are lower in fat since we know that fat intake decreases amongst those who read the labels. Reputable laboratories will conduct a nutritional analysis on your items. You may want to have some of your more popular items analyzed to have the information on hand to give upon request. Chances are you’ll soon start getting more requests for the nutritional breakdown of your products. Promote the freshness of your product. When asked to define “product quality,” 29 per cent of consumers listed freshness as the number one definition. Nutrition was second at 17 per cent (Ipsos Reid).
The new labelling regulations should be good for all sectors of the food industry. Consumers aren’t happy with their diets and in demanding that we give them better information to presumably make better decisions, they’ve held our feet to the fire. It’s our job to make sure there are many tasty, convenient options with nutritional content that any label would be proud to promote.
Bakery foods that are exempt:
1. Food sold on premises that were prepared from scratch.
2. Food products sold only in the retail establishment where they are prepared or processed from their ingredients or from pre-mixes, except where only water is added to the pre-mixes.
3. Foods prepared in restaurants or other food service establishments for immediate consumption (voluntary nutritional labelling sheets should be available on request).
4. Individual serving of food intended for immediate consumption that has not be subjected to a process, including special packaging to extend their shelf life (including ready made sandwiches not subjected to modified atmosphere packaging and sold in refrigerated counters, canteens or vending machines).
5. Foods packaged at retail and labelled by means of stickers where the available display surface of the package is less than 200 sq. cm.
6. Foods sold only at roadside stands, craft shows, flea markets, fairs and farmer’s markets by the person who processed and prepared the product.
Michelle Brisebois is a marketing professional with experience in the food, pharmaceutical and financial services industries. She specializes in helping companies grow their brands. Michelle can be reached at OnTrend Strategies by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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