SUPERMARKETS FACE NEED TO CLEAR CONFUSION ON HEALTH

CHICAGO -- Consumer confusion is obscuring the goal to be healthy and fit, according to statistics presented during Food Marketing Institute's Speaks presentation here last week.Some of the confusion lies with changing and often conflicting information on health issues, the effectiveness of the new food pyramid and diets, Michael Sansolo, senior vice president, FMI, pointed out during the discussion.FMI

CHICAGO -- Consumer confusion is obscuring the goal to be healthy and fit, according to statistics presented during Food Marketing Institute's Speaks presentation here last week.

Some of the confusion lies with changing and often conflicting information on health issues, the effectiveness of the new food pyramid and diets, Michael Sansolo, senior vice president, FMI, pointed out during the discussion.

FMI polled consumers in its annual Trends and Shopping for Health reports to find out how familiar they were with the new dietary guidelines. Nearly 60% said they were either not familiar, or not too familiar with the guidelines. Only 6% said they were familiar with them. "For the most part, they aren't familiar with the guidelines," said Sansolo.

He presented statistics that showed why consumers should be more interested.

Obesity rates nearly tripled to 30.9% of the population in 2000, up from 13.3% in 1962. The number of people with high blood pressure (about 50 million) has risen. There is a large population with diabetes (about 11 million) and another 5.9 million people with undiagnosed diabetes.

The good news is that most consumers do make the connection between health and diet. When asked if their diets could be healthier, 69% of all shoppers surveyed said yes.

According to the Trends report, consumers tended to be more faithful to dieting rather than exercising in maintaining their health. When asked how often they exercised each month, under a third of those surveyed (27%) said they never exercise, despite all the media reports on the benefits of regular physical activities.

In reading food labels to help guide their food purchases, fat reigned at the top of the list for 47% of consumers. This was followed by cholesterol (40%), trans fats (39%), sugars (37%), chemicals (37%) and calories (37%).

Sansolo mentioned that low-carb products, in vogue just over a year ago, are now a relatively low attribute for many consumers. Just 27% of consumers ranked low carb as an important item to be listed on food labels. However, for 44% of consumers who said they are following a low-carb diet, carbohydrates remain an important reading on labels.

FMI found trans fats is another element of confusion for consumers. When asked to rate what is healthier for you -- unsaturated fats, saturated fats or trans fats -- over a third (35%) of consumers said trans fats were better or no worse than other fats.

"They are confused," said Sansolo. "The information keeps coming. They don't know what to do with it. When asked what convinces them a food has healthy attributes, you can see confusion between vitamin-enriched foods [40% think it's a healthy item] and a small percentage [3%] who consider nutraceuticals as a healthy attribute. A few years ago consumers were high on irradiation because they saw it as a healthy potential in the food supply. [Last year] only a small group saw it as a healthy attribute."

While confusion is a partial obstacle to the goal of a healthy life, supermarkets have an opportunity to clear up some of the confusion. They also can make bigger strides in branding their stores as a source for healthy products and information, Sansolo and other panelists said.

Jerel Golub, vice president of perishables, Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., pointed to the opportunity supermarkets have in helping shoppers with health concerns. He urged retailers to provide the right mix of healthy food and nonfood products. "Make it possible for them to live a healthier life," he told FMI attendees. "That is a real opportunity for the industry because supermarkets are uniquely positioned to really differentiate as a channel from others that can't provide the variety of products for those customers looking for a healthier lifestyle."

Although the potential exists for supermarkets to be a leader in delivering health information, statistics indicate the channel is not making progress. While 32% of consumers ranked supermarkets as providing the best health information in 2004, this figure was down from 42% four years prior. The discounters also lost some consumer support. Health food stores, however, picked up nine consumer points when it came to providing health information over the four-year period. In 2000, just 6% of consumers said health food stores provided the best information; four years later, that percentage grew to 15%.