Market View: Labeling dilemma

We're required to tell consumers the amount of trans fatty acids a product contains, but not how to use it

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Having conducted a number of focus groups on a variety of food types, I've come to realize that many younger consumers have no idea how to select food products, or how to prepare or store them. In the past, there was always a consumer network providing basic information about products, but it seems to be missing today.

Years ago, mothers, aunts and grandmothers passed on valuable information about food to young women by spending time in the kitchen with them. My wife was given a copy of all of her mother's recipes on index cards as a wedding gift. This information was reinforced in home economics classes in high school. Girls were taught basic kitchen skills as they prepared simple meals and foods. While not always experts, young married women had a rudimentary knowledge of food and how to prepare it.

It seems much of this informal food network has been lost to mothers spending more time at the office and less time in the kitchen. Meals are eaten on the way to kids' ball games or practices. Home economics courses have been removed from many high schools, and where they are still offered, the curriculum has been changed to include far more than cooking. With school budgets cut to the bone, many students never actually cook anything.

In part, the informal network has been replaced by the Food Network. Television food shows demonstrate how to buy, prepare and store food. Although they vary by region, most markets carry 30-minute meal preparation shows as well as more elaborate fare. Meal planners who have the time to watch these shows often learn a great deal about the foods we sell. On many such programs, I've noticed a greater emphasis on buying and storing ingredients than on actual food preparation..

However, my focus group experience leads me to believe that more needs to be done if we expect today's consumers to get the most from our products and recognize their value. I understand that as an industry we've been providing consumers with more convenient meal kits and prepared dinners, but we also need to provide them with basic information on how to buy, cook and store additional product types.

In a recent focus group for a typical produce item, not one person knew how to properly store the product, yet almost everyone said quick deterioration was a reason for not buying it more often. This translates into lost sales and a lower assigned value of the product.

I recommend a basic review of consumer knowledge about your products. Do they know how to select the product, judge its quality, cook it properly, and store it before and after cooking? What is the "state of knowledge" about your products and their use? My guess is it's less than you think.

To test my theory, I performed a very informal survey with my daughter. She was an elementary school teacher and is now a stay-at-home mom. Her mother has a BS degree in home economics, an MS degree in nutrition, and is a registered dietitian. I asked my daughter if she knew how beef is graded. She had no idea. I asked her how long meat could be stored in the refrigerator. She had no idea other than "not too long." I asked her how one selects various types of produce and, with the exception of bananas, she had no idea.

I asked her about 30 to 40 questions, and for most she didn't have a clue. Some questions she got right. She knew how to make cookies. She took the tube out of the fridge and cut them in slices and put them on a baking sheet.

Along with my daughter, focus groups have told me that much of what's on labels today isn't useful. As mandated by the government, labels provide information on the nutrient composition of food. We're required to tell consumers the amount of trans fatty acid a product contains, but not how to use it.

We need to recognize there is a generation that is much less familiar with food products than its forebears. As such, it may be time to go back to some of the old-fashioned packaging and labels that were more functional and less dramatic in nature. In the era of convenience foods, it may seem an anathema that food companies go back to basics. Even so, it may be good business to tell consumers about what it is we make.

John L. Stanton is a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He can be contacted at 610-660-1607; fax 610-660-1604; e-mail jstanton@sju.edu; or www.johnlstanton.com.

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