Combining in-store promotion with nutrition labels on the front of food packaging can be a successful method for driving shoppers to make healthier choices, according to a panel discussion during a symposium at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) 2012 Annual Meeting & Food Expo.
Front-of-package labels generally provide a recognizable symbol indicating a product meets certain criteria, such as the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Heart Check mark for foods meeting heart-healthy guidelines. They can also list some of the key nutritional information, such as calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars.
Dennis Milne, MS, director of business relations at the AHA, presented research showing that when a tag was put on the grocery store shelf showing that a product had the Heart Check mark, sales of those products increased 1.5% to nearly 7%, depending on the group of shoppers. The sales increase was highest in the group considered “struggling dieters”—those who have a high interest in nutrition but tend to struggle with weight loss and their ability to eat healthy—while it was lowest among those who already follow a strict heart-healthy diet.
“Consumers aren’t necessarily looking for the Heart Check mark, but it does influence them when they see it,” Mr. Milne said.
Mary Christ-Erwin, director of the food and nutrition practice at Porter Novelli, noted that consumer behaviors in the grocery store are driven by many factors, including strong preferences for the same foods.
“It is hard to get something new in that grocery cart,” she said. “People don’t change their eating habits that much. We go where the comfort is, what we like to eat, what works for our families. We don’t want to spend the energy figuring out new patterns.”
Front-of-package labels can play a role in breaking through these patterns because of their ease of use, she said. She pointed to a 2010 study by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation that found when relevant information appeared on the front of the package, consumers were more able to accurately find and state nutritional content.
“The front-of-package label worked. They liked seeing all the information right on the front,” Ms. Christ-Erwin said. “People weren’t confused.”
Front-of-package labels were the focus of an October 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine calling for a simplified, uniform label that would rate foods on the amount of added sugars, sodium and saturated or trans fats. FDA is reviewing the report, and the IFT panelists stressed that many factors would have to be considered before there could be a uniform system for all foods.
The latest Food Marketing Institute (FMI)/Prevention study also attests to the importance of nutrition labeling. With shoppers paying more attention to nutrition, there’s an increasing interest in healthy labeling and private brands, according to “Shopping For Health 2012,” an annual study released by FMI and Prevention magazine.
For the past few years, shoppers have recognized and increased their purchases of foods containing desirable ingredients, including whole grains, fiber and protein. That number continues to grow, with 32% of shoppers reporting that they are buying more foods based on nutritional components versus last year.
Customers are attempting to make more of their calories count for better overall health, with 55% of shoppers switching to whole grain bread, 33% showing an interest in protein on the label (up 10 points since 2009), and 30% switching to Greek yogurt (up nine points since 2011).
“More and more shoppers are making the switch to foods with benefits. They are steering away from empty calories and asking, ‘what’s in my food, and how is it good for me?’” said Cary Silvers, director of consumer insights for Prevention.
The desire to eat healthier and the stagnant economy appear to be two drivers that have led consumers to do more cooking at home, with 57% of people reporting having tried a new healthy recipe in the last year, an increase of five points from 2009. Shoppers recognize and use a variety of reliable sources when it comes to healthy meal ideas. Currently they are finding recipes a variety of ways, including the Internet (39%), cooking shows (37%), magazines (34%), cookbooks (33%), word-of-mouth (31%), recipes on labels (26%), culinary magazines (12%), and supermarket recipes (11%).
With the economy still in a slow-growth mode, many of the tactics shoppers started using in 2008 are still in place, with 63% of shoppers reported only buying what they need (down 1 point from last year), and 60% switching to store brands (up 6 points from last year). While switching to store brands began as a money-saving tactic, improvements to quality, labeling and promotion have strengthened their position versus national brands.
Consumers are aware of their options at the grocery store, as 54% of respondents recognized the effort of food manufacturers to reduce sodium level in their foods. Sixty-seven percent of shoppers say that sodium is important to them, with 32% of shoppers saying that they are buying more low-sodium products versus 2011.