A friend of mine suffers from celiac disease, and I have witnessed how careful such gluten-sensitive individuals need to be in making food choices and how painful it can be when they have an adverse reaction to consuming even moderate amounts of gluten.
Food companies play an important role in helping such sensitive consumers choose a safe and nutritious diet, and giving consumers what they want is Marketing 101, But in the case of celiac disease, food companies are not only providing consumers what they want but in fact they are marketing to and providing what they need. It's sometimes easy for marketers to say they are merely giving consumers what they want, but what about marketing to consumer opinion that we know is less than informed?
For instance, gluten intolerance is real, while harm from consuming foods produced using biotechnology is not. Yet this myth is propagated by many who market organic, natural and other descriptors for niche foods. Marketers who base some of their efforts to increase market share on important public health needs, while giving in to the whims of myths or unscientific public opinion for other campaigns, run the risk of losing the public trust they work so hard to attain.
Today, many processors market food products "free" of "GMO's", HFCS, artificial sweeteners, BST, hormones and "fake" ingredients, among other examples. While there is no evidence of harm from consuming such ingredients, which have FDA approval as safe and efficacious, marketers often fan the flames of activists who target certain food components in order to advance a particular agenda.
What's the problem if processors are just giving consumers what they want? The problem is, when we confuse the marketplace with label declarations that are sometimes important for public health and at other times misleading, we are gambling away consumer trust in food products.
We entrust the food industry and our regulatory agencies to ensure a safe and wholesome food supply, marketed to consumers in a way that is truthful and not misleading. If a trusted brand markets one product as "gluten-free" and another as "GMO-free" wouldn't many loyal consumers of that brand believe that consumption of both products could lead to adverse health effects for at least some people? Is it OK to market against HFCS and imply there is something different about it than any other sugar when the facts are otherwise clear? There is a natural temptation to market to what we think consumers want, but the cost to future brand loyalty could be substantial for those who market to myths without regard to the facts.
David Schmidt is president and CEO of the International Food Information Council (www.ific.org), Washington. IFIC helps cut through information (and misinformation) overload by providing science-based information and consumer insights on food safety and nutrition. IFIC is supported by the food, beverage and agricultural industries but does not play a role in lobbying or regulatory advocacy. IFIC and IFIC Foundation publications on food safety and nutrition issues are produced in cooperation with leading government, health professional, academic and other expert organizations.