Wise words

Julie Fitz-Gerald
November 21, 2013
Written by Julie Fitz-Gerald
Convincing consumers to purchase your goods has little to do with the product itself, at least initially. Before your food can prove its delicious worthiness, the label must do the talking. While many consumers will eventually look to the nutrition facts label on the side of the product, manufacturers can grab their attention by pulling out key nutritional elements that meet a perceived dietary need. Formulating a label that speaks to dietary concerns in today’s market is crucial to selling your product, and it’s important to know what consumers are thinking on both sides of the border. Here, we take a look at what’s happening with American consumers. 

Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst with market research firm NPD Group and author of Eating Patterns in America, has been monitoring American eating habits and their influences for decades. One question that he’s been asking consumers to weigh in on since 1985 is this: I frequently check labels to determine whether the foods I buy contain anything I’m trying to avoid.

“In 1985 when we first asked the question, 71 per cent of Americans said they agreed with this statement on some level. By 1995, when nutrition facts labels were released, that number reached 82 per cent. Today it’s 70 per cent. The label has a value in giving you factual information about the product; it’s just that it’s losing its pizzazz,”
he explains.

Balzer says manufacturers are now taking it upon themselves to highlight on the front of the package the things that consumers look to the label for most often. So, which nutritional facts are consumers most interested in? His research has found that 46 per cent of Americans look for the amount of calories that a product contains, while 43 per cent look for the amount of sugar, 40 per cent look for sodium content and 39 per cent look at fat content. Interestingly, Balzer has found that all of these numbers are declining from their peak years and a new category is emerging.

“Protein: 23 per cent of the population now checks for the amount of protein. Five years ago that number was 19 per cent. It is the only category that’s increasing.”

David Sprinkle, publisher at Packaged Facts, says consumers are looking for positive attributes in their food products, such as natural and organic, as well as formulation attributes like multi-grain and nutritional attributes like high fibre and protein.

“To a significant degree, these have gained momentum at the expense of the negatives-removed attributes, such as the low-fat, low-sugar, low-sodium, and low-cal positioning that defined a previous generation of ‘better for you’ products, although these remain very important to large sets of consumers. Newer ‘negative’ claims, such as gluten-free and GMO-free complicate the picture,” Sprinkle says.

In fact, GMO-free items are gaining huge momentum in today’s market and products that are able to make this claim in prominent positions on the front of the label are bound to resonate with consumers. Balzer’s research shows genetically modified foods to be the next big food issue that the public will be concerned with.

“Over 50 per cent of the adult population now expresses some level of concern about genetically modified foods in their diet. More Americans are concerned than not concerned these days, so that will be an issue to play out at some point with labelling,” says Balzer.

The gluten-free market is also an area that’s experiencing rapid growth. Consumers are jumping on the bandwagon, with 30 per cent of the adult U.S. population saying they would like to cut gluten from their diet, despite only a very small portion of the population having a confirmed diagnosis of celiac disease, according to Balzer’s research. “Gluten-free is a remarkable story and it is the issue of the day,” he says.

Organics on the other hand have plateaued since the recession began in 2007 and therefore may not be your best bet to attract new customers to your product. While the number of American consumers purchasing organic foods doubled from 2003 to 2006, leaping from 13 per cent to 26 per cent, that number has now declined to 22 per cent. “Organic had a real growth rate from 2003 to 2006 and then it just stopped. We cannot find more organic users in this country since the recession began in 2007 . . . Now, 22 per cent is a big number. That means one in five people walking into a supermarket will buy organic, so it’s not a small number, but it’s not growing,” explains Balzer.

“The movement towards adding beneficial substances also looks to be behind us and, if anything, it looks like we’re focusing more now on digestive health issues. Gluten-free is by far the most noteworthy of the changes. Probiotics is still an issue; more people are saying they’d like to get probiotics in their diet. But the movement toward whole grains, the concern about getting more whole grains in their diet, getting more antioxidants – even dietary fibre – these are not growing these days. They had their day about two or three years ago and are now experiencing a decline.”

Given that consumer attitudes toward food are constantly shifting, the task of deciding which attributes to highlight on your product label can be daunting. While foods with high protein content, gluten-free items and non-GMO products are goods that consumers are increasingly interested in; these will undoubtedly be replaced with new dietary fads and trends down the road.

Nevertheless, if you can tie into current dietary trends on your product’s label, you are sure to entice shoppers to pick it up and give it a try. Market research firms are continually studying consumer habits and their findings can be a helpful tool when deciding on which nutritional facts to showcase on the front of the label. By knowing which food attributes matter most to consumers, you can effectively reach them through clever label designs that resonate. 


Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer based in Uxbridge, Ont., and a regular contributor to Bakers Journal.

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