Engaging consumers to communicate food science

by Jeff Gelski
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Consumer reading food package
Consumers are concerned about their health, the health of their family and the environmental health of the earth.
 

SAN DIEGO – Facts supporting food science might be important, but aggregating them for the sole purpose of winning arguments with consumers might be a losing strategy, said Linda Eatherton, partner and director, global food and beverage practice, for Ketchum.

Linda Eatherton, Ketchum
Linda Eatherton, partner and director of global food and beverage practice for Ketchum

“When you have someone in your face saying your truth stinks, what do you do?” she said. “You get mad. Well, that’s how (consumers) feel about it, too.

“So we’re never, ever going to bridge this divide if we come at it from my truth is better than your truth, you’re wrong, I’m right — trying to achieve a winning position. Winning is not part of the equation anymore.”

Food scientists and other professionals in the food industry first should seek common ground with consumers, she said Oct. 9 in her keynote talk at Cereals 17, the AACC International annual meeting in San Diego. Find out their thoughts. Consumers might be interested in their health, the health of their family and the environmental health of the earth. Industry professionals should communicate that they share a value system with consumers. Doing so may allow industry professionals to earn consumers’ trust, enough trust that consumers may listen to scientific facts.

Consumer reading packaged food label
Although consumers may worry about processed foods, they also may allow exceptions.
 

And guess what? Although consumers may worry about processed foods, they also may allow exceptions.

“They’re not saying I want zero processing in my food,” Ms. Eatherton said. “They’re saying they actually do recognize the importance of convenience and convenient foods, and their lives are very busy. So they see a value here. What they’re saying to us is, ‘I don’t necessarily love process, but if you give me a good reason why these processes and these ingredients were used in this food, then I’m going to be okay with it.’”

Consumers want to hear how an ingredient or process is being used for their benefit and their families’ benefit, making them healthier or stronger. The ingredient or process may have sustainable, environmental advantages, too.

“But if you put that ingredient in or that process in because you were cutting corners, because it was cheaper than the other one, you are doing it at (the consumer’s) expense,” Ms. Eatherton said. “That’s the way they view processing.”

Consumer scanning QR code on food package
Consumers seek transparency, such as through Q.R. codes.
 

Consumers seek transparency from food companies, but that does not mean unloading all the information about an ingredient or process. It means providing access to the information, such as through Q.R. (quick-response) codes, she said. Videos and animation on YouTube are another option.

Ketchum research shows 66% of consumers want more communication from food companies and 50% expect food companies to engage consumers through social media.

Ketchum research has identified “food evangelists” as people who are powerful in driving influence in food and beverage purchases. Among food evangelists, 40% share brand and food choices, 40% share opinions on eating, 38% recommend or criticize a food brand and 44% recommend or critique a food product. They may comment on-line about food four times or more a week.

Food evangelists want to know how companies may make their life better and their children’s lives better. They are “extremely opinionated,” Ms. Eatherton said. Twitter is the No. 1 place they congregate. Instagram is their second choice. The incomes of food evangelists are spread evenly. While Ketchum considered 22% of the global population to be food evangelists in 2013, the percentage grew to 24% in 2015.

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READER COMMENTS (1)

By Dr. Robert L. Shewfelt, Professor Emeritus of Food Science 10/11/2017 11:22:14 AM
This article sounds good, but the flaw in the argument is that the food industry is much more interested in pleasing the food evangelists than in communicating food science. Food scientists are asked by their employers to use their skills to make products look less frightening. Is the industry being more transparent when they pretend their products are free of chemicals by cleaning up their labels? Is it communicating good science when it promotes honey, maple syrup and brown rice syrup as healthier ingredients than sugar? Is bacon really “uncured” when a company uses celery salt to achieve that pink color and preserve it? Meanwhile, are food scientists not beholden to the industry for their jobs supposed to let the false claims by the food evangelists go unchallenged? Michael Pollan tells us that “Nutrition science, in my view, is sort of where surgery was in the year 1650.” Stefanie Stacks, a big fan of vanilla extract urges us to avoid any food with an ingredient “out of its natural environment, thus altering its natural form.” Finally, in a news article we learn that “Amazon is developing new technologies to make ready-to-eat meals that are more nutritious than processed foods and have a longer shelf life.” I try to discuss such subjects rationally on my website, processedfoodsite.com, without shying away from hurting the feelings of the industry, the evangelists, or consumers. However, every day that we cede credibility to those who spread misinformation, intentionally or unintentionally, is a day that we succumb to popular opinion at the cost of scientific reasoning.