Written by guest blogger, Maeve Webster, President of Menu Matters.
From the time the country became aware of and concerned about the rising weight of Americans, food labels were thrust into the forefront. Suddenly food labels, which were primarily a marketing tool to that point, needed to become a source of information and education.
So, what do consumers want—and need—from labels? Is nutritional information the most critical element? And how does the current set of information, recently revamped by the federal government, meet modern consumer needs? These were among the questions Charleston|Orwig sought to answer in their most recent study on food labeling and consumer behavior.
Two-thirds of consumers from a nationally representative sample noted the details on food and beverage labels are important or very important. Given there’s little doubt consumers are looking for food/ beverage labels to provide essential information, the question becomes what that information should be.
It is perhaps not surprising that 71% of consumers say they expect nutrition information to be easy to find. Over the past few decades this is the information consumers have been trained to look for, and it has become increasingly important to 41% of consumers. But the stress on this information has not necessarily led to tangible results in the battle against American obesity. Despite the federal government requiring standardized nutrition labels starting in 1990, the share of Americans struggling with obesity has increased from 26% in 1990 to 37% in 2017 according to the CDC.
The biggest challenge regarding the nutrition information provided to consumers is a significant lack of understanding and education allowing consumers to use it effectively. The vast majority of consumers have little understanding of how many calories they should consume daily, how many grams of fat are healthy or what to do with the carbohydrate information.
Food labels were redesigned a few years ago to make that information easier to access for consumers. Still, only 7% say manufacturers are doing an excellent job at providing the information they want on labels. This level of reported frustration suggests that while consumers say nutrition information is most important, they are likely looking for other information. But what?
When asked what information consumers “expect” to be on labels, nearly 60% indicated that they want information that ensures the product is fresh, and 54% want information that ensures the product is safe. Compare this with the 44% that noted information that helps them eat better.
Additionally, consumers want to understand more about the food, including where it was manufactured (46%), where the ingredients were sourced (44%), and other more emotionally or ethically focused information like company values and practices.
How that information is presented can also impact consumer satisfaction and trust. Fonts that are too small can lead to consumers believing that critical information is deliberately hidden (32%). Wording needs to be clear and easily understandable (25%) and not “too scientific” (24%), which goes hand-in-hand with the growing “clean label” or real food movement.
While the food industry and the government focus on the importance of nutrition, consumers are looking for other information that makes them feel better about the purchases they make. Nutrition information can certainly be a part of that broader information, but labels must play many roles from alerting consumers of allergens to providing company ethics information. How food and beverage companies choose to prioritize this information will vary, but there is no doubt packaging will continue to be a critical communication tool going forward.