While nutrition science has progressed, pseudoscience and misleading, overinflated claims haven’t helped public understanding.
“We can do more to communicate the chemistry and science of food,” said Paul Metz,
C&R Research, at IFT 16 during a consumer panel session, which focused on perceptions of nutrition and healthy foods.
As more packaged goods and restaurants are adopting and promoting “clean label” products and menus, what that means exactly often depends on individual perception, and bias. “It’s a really challenging environment right now for foods and food retailing,” said Mr. Metz.
C&R Research surveyed 965 adults in the U.S., conducting 36 qualitative interviews in home and as they shopped to better understand how people perceive foods and nutrition. The results painted a complex picture.
About 69% of those surveyed claimed they read labels regularly. But that can mean very different things to individual consumers.
To many, trust in the food industry remains elusive. One Millennial named Rob was quoted as saying, “I like more natural ingredients, but at the same time that also makes me feel more skeptical because I don’t trust all companies that are claiming they do this.”
Of the 69% who said they evaluate labels regularly, C&R classified 28% as “Meticulous” label readers, who regularly read labels to see what specific ingredients are in almost every food they buy. A further 22% can be considered “Red Flag Avoiders” who look at labels occasionally because they keep an eye out for one or two things. Additionally, 19% have a “Fear of Chemicals,” looking at labels fairly often to be sure there aren’t too many artificial ingredients that they can’t pronounce.
There are significant generational differences in clean label sensitivity, said Mr. Metz. For example, Millennials have grown up in an environment where there has been much attention on GMOs in food. They don’t necessarily buy into everything food companies, the press or the government are telling them, and instead they get a lot of information from social media and other sources.
Companies need to be attentive to drivers and motives of each generation, said Mr. Metz.
In terms of top concerns by generation, Millennials look for: sugar, all-natural, protein, sodium and no preservatives. For Gen X consumers, cost/value is a more significant driver, as products that are on sale ranked first, followed by all-natural, sugar, hormone-free and trans fats. For Boomers, the top concerns included sugar, sodium, trans fats, artificial sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrup.
It’s important for companies to know their product’s core target and understand their “taboos.”
“When you grew up matters when it comes to clean labeling,” said Mr. Metz. There are differences in priorities and how they approach decisions about food. Millennials often rally around good causes; they are informed and skeptical. They also get a lot of information from social media, which might be a worthwhile marketing avenue for clean label advocates.
Meanwhile, Gen X has less time to care, and convenience is very important. As for Baby Boomers, eight in 10 said they are decreasing purchase of foods because of clean label related issues. They are the generation most apt to turn to expert advice like doctors.
Opinions about foods also vary based on the category of product. For example, shoppers are most likely to give a pass to indulgent items or those they are likely to consume immediately, compared to something they are buying for their family.
In the end, clean label issues and attitudinal perceptions of food are not static. “Things are changing and evolving constantly,” said Mr. Metz. However, the hysteria about GMOs is likely to continue for some time, and requires significant investment in education and outreach.