Those who have read this column know I am vexed by the change the food industry has made from presenting positive attributes of products (such as high in protein) to putting negative claims on food labels (no additives).
I’m not sure consumers are really looking for all the negative things the industry now calls out on the labels. If they are, so be it. Rather, I feel the industry is responding to a noisy subgroup. And I think in some cases food companies are responding to focus groups as an indication of what consumers want.
Having conducted literally hundreds of focus groups, I know two things to be facts: the results can vary widely between groups on the same topic, and consumers within a group can be significantly influenced by the more boisterous group members, especially with social implications. The misuse of focus groups is rampant and should be a topic of an article to itself.
My recent research shows that what food companies put on their labels has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. The sample size for the number of labels analyzed in 2006 was 1,711 labels and in 2016 we analyzed 2,150 labels.
For example, the number of dairy labels (all dairy products) claiming “high in vitamins and minerals” dropped by 62 percent between 2006 and 2016, while in the same period the claim “hormone free” increased more than 300 percent*. Dairy labels with the GMO-free claim increased by more than 1000 percent while "added calcium" was down 61 percent.
In my opinion it appears that the industry is telling consumers all the things that the products are not and not building a positive image of the food itself. The more important question is how well do these label claims jive with what consumers value in food?
Euromonitor, the world’s leading independent provider of strategic market research, has both data and analysis on thousands of products and services around the world. It measured the Preferred Food Attributes and Ingredients of about 1,800 U.S. consumers in 2017. The most frequently mentioned attribute was “value for money” (mentioned by roughly 50 percent of consumers) and the third most mentioned was “low price” (35 percent). Yet, according to Mintel Global New Products Database, which tracks what's on product labels, less than 5 percent of all labels mention economy.
The Euromonitor data reported ethically/environmentally conscious claims were mentioned by about 27 percent of consumers, whereas as only 17 percent of dairy labels made such a claim. All-natural was mentioned about 20 percent in the Euromonitor data but it appeared on only 9 percent of the dairy products, having decreased from 2006 to 2016 by 17 percent.
It is possible that some in the food industry use Google Trends data to decide what consumers really want. Google Trends shows the search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. Likewise, a score of 0 means the term was less than 1 percent as popular as it was at its peak.
If you take the search term “gluten free” and look at the five-year Google search trends, it is virtually unchanged. In December 2012 the index was 70 while in December 2017 it was 73. A search for “hormone free” for the same time period was 51 in 2006 and 58 in 2017. One may suggest that I used the wrong search term for hormone free, so I also used rBST. In 2012 the search index was 56 and in 2017 it was 59. Its highest index in the five years was 75 in March 2005 and it has continued to drop since then.
The search term “added calcium” was 48 in 2006 and rose to 61 in 2016. During this period actual dairy label claims regarding calcium decreased 61 percent and hormone free increased by more than 300 percent. The same analysis was done on other food groups such as processed fish, meat and eggs with virtually the same results.
I am trying to determine what is the source of all the negative claims on labels. I tried just searching with Google. I searched “hormone free.” The first Google entry was titled “ One fascinating article was from a “Mom, Grandmom and a farmer.” She said, “At every event one question I always ask people is, ‘What percentage of pork (or poultry) is raised in the US without added hormones?’ I even try to be helpful and give three answers to choose from: ‘Is it 50 percent, 75 percent or 100 percent?’ Of all the times I have asked this question (sadly) I have never had one person answer it correctly. The answer is 100 percent. Yes, it’s true: No pigs or poultry are given added hormones (in the food supply).” When she asked why these people think added hormones are used it always comes back to one answer--labels.
The answer to my initial question is the food industry is creating its own problems. As the old comic strip character Pogo said, “We have found the enemy and it is us!”
* The analysis used Mintel GNPD, which provides label information as well as much more information on all new products throughout the world.