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As Waistlines Shrink, Product Skepticism Swells

As Waistlines Shrink, Product Skepticism Swells

According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s calculations, there have been at least 10,000 new and reformulated product introductions in the past five years of items boasting more whole grains and fiber, reduced calories and saturated fat, lower sodium and sugar, and zero trans fat. Since GMA’s count is based on responses from slightly under half of its members, and doesn’t include launches of portion-controlled offerings such as 100-calorie packs, the number of better-for-you products penetrating the marketplace could very well have exceeded 20,000.

Bombarded with claims of “excellent source” of a specific nutrient, and comparative claims describing an item as having “more” of something relative to the competitor’s product, many consumers peruse the aisles behind a sturdy shield of skepticism.

In fact, 70% of U.S. and U.K. consumers surveyed as part of a recently released IBM study expressed a low overall trust in the claims branded food products make about their health and wellness benefits and environmental impact.

Similar perceptions were revealed by my own informal shopper survey. Health-conscious consumers related that they sometimes circumvent what they perceive to be biased adjectives used to describe a product on a package’s face and go directly to its trusty nutritional facts panel to get the skinny on the health benefits.

Almost all were unaware, for instance, that the use of qualitative terms like “good source” and “excellent source” are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and based on a quantifiable scale.

To make a “good source of vitamin C” claim on a carton of orange juice, for instance, a single serving must contain between 10% and 19% of the daily recommended value of vitamin C, while an “excellent source” declaration requires that a serving contain greater than or equal to 20% of the daily recommended value of a particular nutrient.

Kellogg’s seems to be cutting to the nutritional chase with its plan to identify the percentages of calories, total fat and sodium as well as grams of sugar per serving on the front of its cereal boxes. The new label, which will be introduced later this year, will also highlight nutrients such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and vitamins.

The manufacturer could be taking cues from retailers who are satiating consumers’ appetites for concise and accessible nutritional information that cuts through what’s perceived to be marketing fluff.

Chains like Publix, Hannaford Bros. and United Supermarkets have taken on the role of impartial health advisor by providing easy-to-understand and unbiased rating systems and product-specific facts about nutrition, at their shelves’ edges.

These resources are proving invaluable for time-pressed consumers, who are expressing their appreciation through letters and phone calls.

The accolades are well deserved — in establishing and maintaining these programs, retailers’ efforts have been arduous. It took a team of Hannaford dietitians more than two years to review 27,000 different products before establishing the chain’s Guiding Stars rating system, which ranks its healthiest products with one to three stars for “good,” “better” or “best” nutritional value. Judging by today’s headlong rate of better-for-you product introductions, supermarkets continue to have their work cut out for them.