Staking a claim

by Allison Sebolt
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With many consumers knowing fruits and vegetables are healthful for them, General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, is marketing a line of frozen Green Giant vegetables for specific benefits related to weight control, vision and an immunity boost.

The health claims are simply a reflection of some of the naturally occurring nutrients in the vegetables such as fiber for weight management, vitamin A for eye health and vitamins A and C for increased immunity.

According to Lynn Dornblaser, director of consulting for Mintel Custom Solutions, Mintel International, Chicago, such promotion of the natural goodness in foods is the direction many food companies are going with their health claims.

"It’s not about those vegetables being modified in any way or being fortified," Ms. Dornblaser said. "It’s about what those vegetables inherently do."

To this trend of touting more natural benefits of foods, ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha, has recently introduced Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes and Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes with Garlic — two all-natural options with no artificial ingredients or preservatives. Additionally, Orville Redenbacher’s, another ConAgra brand, has introduced two natural products — Simply Salted and Simply Salted 50% Less Fat.

Through the Planters brand, Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill., has a line of "Nut-rition" products, including different varieties of nuts boasting various benefits, including a heart health claim as well as the natural health benefits of nuts, including vitamins and minerals such as fiber, vitamin E, niacin, phosphorus and magnesium.

These companies are hardly alone in their efforts. A total of 1,923 new all-natural food products were added to the Mintel Global New Products Database between January and Dec. 6 of this year, which was up from 1,430 in 2005. The Nielsen Co., New York, reported $19.3 billion in sales for natural claims for the year ended July 14 in U.S. channels excluding Wal-Mart, up 8% from the previous year.

In terms of organic items, the Mintel database saw 1,472 new food introductions during the 2007 period compared with 1,117 in 2005. According to Nielsen, sales of organic products for the year ended July 14 were $3.7 billion, up 26% from the previous year.

Claims for foods with no additives and preservatives have increased from 955 products introduced in 2005 to 1,672 products in 2007, according to Mintel. Nielsen said preservative-free claims for the year ended July 14 were $10.2 billion, up 2% from the previous year.

New food product introductions with kosher claims have jumped from 1,851 introductions in 2005 to 3,789 new introductions so far in 2007. Mintel also said the market for kosher foods in the United States has grown to $40 billion in sales annually and that nearly three in four specialty food buyers say they buy kosher and/or halal products for quality rather than religious purposes.

"Kosher has gone so far beyond being for religious reasons and much more because of a lifestyle choice," Ms. Dornblaser said. "It’s all about consumer belief that kosher products are somehow more wholesome, they are handled in a more ethical way, the processing is cleaner or that they are better for you somehow."

A few examples of the recent increase in kosher products include a breakfast sausage from Hebrew National, a ConAgra brand. Other Hebrew National products include various beef franks and deli meats. The Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., has various products certified kosher, including V8 juice, Campbell’s Tomato Juice, Pace Salsa, Campbell’s Vegetarian Vegetable Soup and several products in the Godiva chocolates and Pepperidge Farm breads lines.

Low-sodium claim gains momentum

Reducing sodium levels has generated numerous products claiming low-sodium levels, with 341 new food and beverage product introductions with such a claim in 2005, 493 in 2006 and 472 from January to Dec. 11, according to Mintel. Growth in the category could continue as the F.D.A. held a recent hearing concerning removing the "generally recognized as safe" status of salt and regulating it as a food additive in response to a petition of the Center for Science in the Public Interest calling for revision of the regulatory status and establishment of specific labeling requirements. ConAgra also recently announced it has undergone a company-wide initiative to cut salt, which has resulted in the removal of about 2.8 million lbs of salt from consumer’s diets annually, the company said.

While Ms. Dornblaser said the trend in health claims is going toward products boasting of their natural benefits, she said there always will be a place for fortified products as well.

The form of fortification getting the most attention in terms of health claims recently is omega-3 fatty acid levels in foods. The emergence of omega-3 claims appearing on products has prompted the F.D.A. to propose limits to such claims and consider the need for a nutrient level, or reference value, to establish by regulation a label reference value for use in nutrition labeling. The F.D.A. is accepting comments on the matter until Feb. 11.

Making claims in the future

Ms. Dornblaser said while it’s not a major category now, products revealing their origins are increasingly gaining popularity. She said this focus isn’t about safety and security, but simply knowing where food comes from. She said this expands into other claims focusing on ethics, such as Fair Trade certification, claims discussing fair working conditions and cause marketing such as breast cancer awareness products.

"It’s all about where it comes from and what’s in it and the bigger issue of what’s the impact on people and on the environment," Ms. Dornblaser said.

The numbers also suggest consumers are beginning to understand where their foods come from. According to The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., 43% of consumers said it is very important to know where their food products and ingredients come from. In addition, 75% of consumers said labeling the country or place of origin of products and ingredients should be mandatory compared with 8% of consumers who are not in favor of mandatory country of origin labeling regulations, according to the report, "Label Reading from a Consumer Perspective."

When looking at the big picture, Nielsen said the top health and wellness label claims in terms of sales data are claims involving fat levels, being natural, calorie levels, salt/sodium levels, being preservative-free, and cholesterol-free claims, respectively. Nielsen also reported health and wellness claims to watch include the absence of a specific fat in foods, products being free of hormones and antibiotics, being organic, fiber levels, antioxidants, being gluten-free, omega-3 levels, being bioengineered-free and having the presence of probiotics. For the year ended July 14, all of these claims grew by at least 10% in sales with probiotic claims growing with 141% growth.

Challenge of understanding consumers

With such a proliferation of health claims, consumers also are reporting confusion from the array of these claims. According to The Hartman Group study, 50% of consumers find various health claims to be "very" or "somewhat" confusing or misleading compared with the 29% of consumers who feel these claims and symbols are "somewhat" or "very credible or helpful."

In addition, a new report from market researcher Technomic, "The Healthy-by-Design Foods Report," stated consumers are often confused about the difference between organic and all-natural foods, often thinking they mean the same or switching the definitions.

Among the 15% of consumers in The Hartman Group study who ranked health claims as the most important part of the label to them, nearly all said they use health claims as a result of a health condition, such as diabetes, cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease.

At the same time, consumers seeking wellness are more likely to feel strongly health claims and symbols are very confusing or misleading, with 33% of core wellness consumers feeling this way compared with 9% of mid-level and 7% of periphery consumers feeling this way. Thirty-seven per cent of periphery wellness consumers find health claims and symbols to be helpful or credible compared with 24% of core and 26% of mid-level consumers.

The Hartman Group also found 47% of consumers strongly agree health claims need to be more strongly regulated, with 40% saying health claims need to be standardized and 24% of consumers feeling there are too many health claim statements.

The study suggested consumers might be trying to discover for themselves the natural benefits of foods through their own observations. The Hartman Group found among the many different components found on a typical food and beverage package label, the parts of the package consumers look at are with the most consistency are the nutrition facts panel, the ingredient list and the expiration or freshness date.

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