Come Jan. 1, food companies are supposed to disclose the amount of dreaded trans fats in their products. They're also required to start listing the presence of eight common food allergens, including wheat, milk and soy.
Even McDonald's, the poster child for all that's wrong with Americans' eating habits, is joining the disclosure trend. Hoping to diffuse criticism from consumer groups, the fast-food giant announced it would put the nutrition content of most of its menu items on wrappers.
No doubt the nutrition content of Big Macs and fries will be lost on many Mickey D's patrons. But the trend toward fuller disclosure will be welcome news to many consumers.
People believe they can make a difference in their health by what they eat, and are hungering for information about what's in their food. Eighty-five percent of consumers are at least somewhat concerned about their food's nutritional content, while 69% admit their diet could be somewhat or a lot healthier, according to the Food Marketing Institute's comprehensive U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2005 report.
As consumers become more informed about health and nutrition, they're demanding more specifics. According to the Natural Marketing Institute, while people are less inclined to seek out just plain low-fat products, 44% are trying to limit the amount of trans fats in their diet, up 8% from last year.
One place people aren't getting a lot of information is from supermarkets, though. According to the FMI report, when asked where they regularly sought sources of information about nutrition, survey respondents ranked supermarkets eighth out of 11 choices, among them media, doctors, and friends and family.
It gets worse. Just 2% of those surveyed indicated they trusted supermarkets as a source. Only 13% were very satisfied with the nutrition information available at the grocery store, while 45% were somewhat or not too satisfied.
Talk about missed opportunities.
Mona Doyle, who's studied shopper behavior for more than 25 years through her research firm, the Consumer Network, says that only 15% to 20% of people read nutrition labels. There's an education gap that supermarkets could fill by training associates to provide information and answer questions.
Another way is by simplifying their decisions. People want more control, as the popularity of 100-calorie snack products from companies like Kraft and Kellogg would suggest, she says.
Conventional supermarkets don't always make it easy, though. Unlike health food stores, where shoppers can enter with the reasonable expectation that everything on the shelf is wholesome, supermarkets leave consumers to sort through the good and the bad, mostly on their own.
Doyle imagines retailers going beyond shelf labeling systems and creating more aisles dedicated to specific health interests, like low-sodium or low-fat.
"People like shortcuts," she said. "I think they would respond to anything that would make it easier to make healthier decisions."
The McDonald's move makes it clear: Transparency in food labeling is here to stay. Supermarkets would do well to try to turn that information into knowledge.