Adding credibility to the health and wellness equation

by Keith Nunes
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When it comes to the subject of nutrition information, the food and beverage industry may have a credibility problem. Even the possibility is distinctly troubling as some of the industry’s largest companies, including Nestle S.A. and Groupe Danone, have made health and nutrition the cornerstone of their businesses going forward.

A survey conducted by the American Dietetics Association earlier this year and released during the association’s Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in Chicago in late October revealed that when survey participants were read a list of nutrition information sources and asked how credible they believe each one was, food manufacturers finished last.

That registered dietitians, nutritionists, physicians, nurses and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPyramid ranked higher than food manufacturers may be somewhat understandable. But when schools, personal trainers, newspapers, health clubs, family/friends, the Internet, television, radio and grocery stores all were considered more credible sources of nutrition information among the 783 consumers surveyed it is troubling.

One may only hope the nutrition information consumers find in newspapers, magazines, on television and the radio is predominately generated by scientific sources associated with food manufacturers. But if consumers don’t consider food companies credible, is it a stretch to think news directors find information generated with food company support lacking as well?

For those looking for a silver lining within the survey, consumers did identify "package labels" as a credible source of nutrition information, ranking it after schools and personal trainers but before health clubs and family/friends. It may be argued the labels appearing on packages of food relate to the credibility of the manufacturers themselves, but the survey did not differentiate between the federally mandated Nutrition Facts Panel required to appear on food products sold at retail and other items of nutrition information on product packages generated by manufacturers.

The notion food manufacturers are not considered even a leading source of credible nutrition information underscores the future challenges many companies face as the health and wellness market evolves. Communicating the nutritional value of new products is a key to marketing success. Thus, the idea that outside interests may be viewed as having more credibility presents a powerful challenge. This will be especially apparent in the functional foods market, where manufacturers are adding unique benefits to products.

In a separate part of the A.D.A. survey, consumers also were asked about their knowledge and consumption of "health-related foods and nutrients." On a scale of one to five, with one being the least amount of knowledge and five being the highest, consumers overwhelmingly said they were more aware of and consumed more products in which an attribute was reduced or eliminated, such as low-fat, low-sugar and low-sodium products, than those in which an attribute was added, such as omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics. Omega-3 fatty acids ranked mid-way through the list while probiotics ranked last.

It is no surprise that omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics ranked lower on the list, given the limited amount of time many of these products have been on the market compared with foodstuffs formulated to be lower in fat, sugar or sodium. But it will be disappointing if such ingredients hold the same low position the next time the A.D.A. conducts its survey.

Strikingly apparent is the great opportunity food companies have to better communicate about the efforts they have undertaken to improve the health and nutrition of products. Going forward, manufacturers will be best served not only to communicate the benefits of the products they are selling, but the research invested in the development of these products. Such an effort will provide consumers with information they may use to improve diets as well as to restore the industry’s credibility as a good source of nutrition information.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, November 11, 2008, starting on Page 7. Click here to search that archive.

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