The perception of processed

by Jeff Gelski
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For one mother of a 7-year-old, Kool-Aid may symbolize her mixed feelings about processed foods and beverages.

“What is Kool-Aid exactly?” she said March 23 at Wellness 11, an event in Chicago put on by the Institute of Food Technologists.

While the mother said she knew Kool-Aid may not be the most natural beverage, her family liked it.

“I was a rock star when I brought that home,” she said.

She was one of six mothers on a panel who gave their views on processed foods and beverages. Besides the panel, the session “Processed foods through the eyes of shoppers” featured results from a HealthFocus International study, which revealed giving processed food a healthy benefit may improve its standing with consumers. The session also featured examples from Innova Market Insights about how to promote the less-processed aspects of products.

All six mothers on the panel were asked to describe processed food in one word. Their responses included “unhealthy,” “fake” and “un-natural.” Yet the mothers also said processed foods and beverages may have benefits in price, convenience and taste.

Referring to the convenience of processed food, a mother of six children said she tries to have her family members eat as healthy as they are able to without eating at 9:30 every night.

Preparing meals her family actually will eat is another concern.

“I don’t want them to go to a friend’s house to eat all the time,” she said.

Like several mothers on the panel, she viewed high-fructose corn syrup negatively but seemed misinformed. The mother of six said she believed the body breaks down sugar better than it does high-fructose corn syrup. The American Medical Association has said the composition of HFCS and sucrose (sugar) are similar, particularly on absorption by the body.

The HealthFocus International study involved 5,000 shoppers. About 75% of them said they thought of the term “processed food” in a negative way, but some consumers in the study also said some processing may be needed for products to have such attributes as convenience and affordability.

Perceived health benefits in a product may make consumers believe the product is less processed, according to the study. For example, the consumers thought of white bread as more processed than whole grain bread. They thought the same of frozen food meals when compared to low-calorie frozen food meals and regular yogurt when compared to organic yogurt.

“Simply,” “nothing but” and “minimally processed” are packaging words that may make consumers perceive a product to be less processed, said Lu Ann Williams, head of research at Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands.

She gave an example of Heinz using the word “simply” in its rebranding of ketchup. She added that in Colombia the front package of a Munch peanut bar says “Only 6 Simple Ingredients.” In Belgium, the front package of edamame beans says “Nothing but beans!” Finally, the front package of Michael Angelo’s pocket calzones says “minimally processed.”

Industry needs to gain control of messages to consumers

Consumer groups that may try to “demonize processors” know how to reach their target audience, said Dick Crawford, a consultant for Geezers Consulting and formerly vice-president of government relations for McDonald’s Corp.

“They know how to make a point and go back at it,” he said March 23 in Chicago at Wellness 11, an industry event put on by the Institute of Food Technologists.

He gave examples of the Center for Science in the Public Interest questioning the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status of salt and criticizing artificial colors. The food and beverage industry in response needs to take a more proactive approach in spreading its message to consumers.

Donald Foley, director of public affairs for Ketchum, urged industry to come together collectively and become a source of information. Industry should make better use of social media and be willing to more frequently make information available to consumers, even if some of it is rejected, he said.

Industry should try to learn in advance what consumer groups will target and have strategies in place, he said.

Mr. Foley said industry should work together with First Lady Michelle Obama, who has made food and health her focus, much like former First Lady Nancy Reagan focused on drug use. Mrs. Obama has not demonized the food industry, and she may have an effect on food nutrition for another two years, six years or perhaps even longer, said Mr. Foley, who was convention manager for the Chicago Democratic national convention in 1996.

Industry should not ignore lawsuits or the threat of lawsuits from consumer groups, Mr. Foley said. Instead, industry should use it as an opportunity to turn the conversation around and make positive statements.

Anthony Pavel, a partner in K&L Gates, gave the example of Taco Bell’s advertising following a lawsuit questioning the meat content in Taco Bell products. Mr. Pavel called the advertising a “brilliant response.”

Understanding salt’s appeal

Studying taste receptors may lead to insight on ways to reduce sodium gradually

Hope for sodium reduction in the 21st century may come from a book first published in 1726. The main character in “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift ventured to a land without salt. At first, he found his diet bland, but “custom soon reconciled the want of it.”

Gary K. Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, cited the excerpt from “Gulliver’s Travels” to show consumers in this century gradually may adjust to food with less salt in it, but the task may take years. He spoke March 24 in Chicago at Wellness 11, an event run by the Institute of Food Technologists.

Dr. Beauchamp was co-author of a study “Flavor perception in human infants: development and functional significance” that appeared on-line March 10 in Digestion. He said newborn infants respond to a sweet taste, but they do not respond strongly to the taste of salt. A sensitivity to and preference for salty tasting substances appears to have an innate component that develops at about 4 months of age, according to the study.

“It seems like the salt taste apparatus is maturing in humans after birth,” Dr. Beauchamp said.

At Philadelphia-based Monell Chemical Senses Center, he has studied salt taste receptors on the tongue, specifically how and why sodium goes through an epithelial Na channel (ENaC). Such research may lead to the development of new salt enhancers or replacers, he said. It is unlikely researchers will find a replacement for salt that is as effective as aspartame is for replacing sugar, Dr. Beauchamp said.

Besides Monell, industry and government have taken steps to reduce sodium intake. Frito-Lay North America, a division of PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, N.Y., now offers Lay’s Lightly Salted, Fritos Lightly Salted and Rold Gold Tiny Twists pretzels. The products have 50% less sodium than traditional Frito-Lay products. Sodium-reduction tactics used by Frito-Lay include using finer flake salt to get better coverage with less sodium and removing sodium bicarbonate from baked products like pretzels, said Kari Hecker Ryan, group manager of nutrition and regulatory affairs for Frito-Lay North America, when she spoke March 23.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans released in January recommend people limit daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg while the number should be less than 1,500 mg for people ages 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. The estimated average intake of sodium for all Americans ages 2 and older is about 3,400 mg per day.

The Institute of Medicine in a 2010 report said reducing the sodium content of foods should be carried out gradually.

“Evidence shows that a decrease in sodium can be accomplished without affecting consumer enjoyment of food products if it is done in a stepwise process that systematically and gradually lowers sodium levels across the food supply,” the report said.

Dr. Beauchamp said he had no recommendations about how long the stepwise process might take.

“Certainly years would be a minimum,” he said.

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