Since Hannaford Bros. introduced its Guiding Stars program in 2006, nutritional labeling guidance programs of various kinds have proliferated across the food retailing industry.
In fact, the past year has been a watershed for these programs. According to The Food Retailing Industry Speaks 2011, the Food Marketing Institute's annual industry survey, 48.5% of retailer respondents said they have implemented a nutritional labeling guidance program such as NuVal, Guiding Stars or their own proprietary system. That's almost twice as many respondents (26.2%) who said they used the programs in the 2010 report.
Along with retailers' programs, manufacturers are coming out this year with Nutrition Keys, the voluntary front-of-package labeling system designed by FMI and the Grocery Manufacturers Association to provide essential nutrition information.
And then there is the cornucopia of claims made on manufacturer packaging about the nutritional and health value of their products. Consumers could be forgiven if they felt somewhat bewildered if not skeptical about this cross-current of information.
The most objective source of nutritional information on individual products is the Nutrition Facts Panel on the back of packaging. But since these labels started appearing on foods and beverages in 1995, interest in reading them has diminished, according to research conducted by the NPD Group. Presented with the statement, “I frequently check labels to determine whether the foods I buy contain anything I'm trying to avoid,” 64% of consumer respondents tracked by NPD completely or mostly agreed with that statement in 1995, but since then agreement has ranged from a high of 61% to a low of 50%.
Manufacturers and retailers have been trying to fill that informational void — and make the process of interpreting nutritional facts easier for consumers. Results from FMI's U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2011 report suggest that retailers' nutritional labeling programs are indeed making a difference: Two-thirds of consumer respondents said they use the programs either frequently or occasionally, and 7% said they use them each time they shop, to select healthier foods.
In addition, 43% said they absolutely make healthier choices now than before using the programs and 36% said they maybe make more healthful choices now.
These numbers suggest the power labeling programs can have. It's therefore vital for retailers to carefully vet them and select the one deemed most beneficial for public health. That's not necessarily a simple task since the programs vary in their approaches, and their pros and cons can be debated.
Most importantly, nutritional guidance programs need to be seen as educational tools — and not as marketing vehicles intended to improve sales more than health.
With the growing problems of obesity and diabetes, nutritional information programs, used wisely, offer retailers an opportunity to expand their traditional role and help consumers find the products that are nutritionally best for them.