Claiming attention

by Allison Sebolt
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Consumers see many different types of label claims on food packaging every time they visit the grocery store. There are health claims, content claims, and structure/function claims among others appearing on labels of food products. Some claims are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, some are not. So are consumers paying attention to these claims and understanding what the claims mean? Or are there better ways to reach consumers?

"Consumers do notice label claims that relate to food and health … there are a number of different kinds of label claims that differ in their regulatory process," said Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, director of health and nutrition for the International Food Information Council, Washington. "Consumers are not aware of the differences in how each kind of claim is regulated, so they look at a number of different claims as being very similar."

Dr. Barbara Davis, vice-president of scientific strategy with HealthFocus International, St. Petersburg, Fla., agreed with the point, saying she isn’t sure consumers see various claims as different from each other but, in general, they do view food label claims as important. She said interest in health information is high, with 38% of consumers saying they find the most useful source of information for health and nutrition to be food labels.

"Just as consumers may home in on one aspect of the Nutrition Facts Panel because it’s something that matters most to them … they also may home in on a specific claim that is of interest to them," Ms. Reinhardt Kapsak said.

Laurie Demeritt, president and chief operating officer of The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., said consumers are paying attention to claims but there is a proliferation of functional claims out there that are getting a bit onerous for consumers.

According to the IFIC, consumers prefer a structure/function claim — a claim explaining the physiological effect of a food component on bodily function ("calcium helps to maintain bone health," for example) — when the food component and the related health condition are well known and the potential health condition (osteoporosis) is not a concern. In other words, consumers are more interested in the effect of the component because they might not see the condition as relating to them.

A health claim, which the IFIC defines as a claim indicating the presence of a food component and explaining its potential role in reducing the risk of a particular disease ("soy protein may reduce the risk of heart disease"), is most effective when the food component is less familiar to Americans but the health condition is a top health concern. Consumers might be more interested in learning about a component when they know what it may do for them.

The IFIC said content claims, which simply state a food contains a certain component ("contains calcium"), are less effective except when a food component and its health benefits are well known.

Defining a claim’s success rate

"The success of a health claim really depends on, first, the consumer’s awareness of the diet and health relationship," Ms. Reinhardt Kapsak said. "You have to start somewhere, and if consumers aren’t aware that a diet and health relationship exists, you are really starting at ground zero in terms of communicating and increasing the awareness of that relationship."

Ms. Reinhardt Kapsak said when it comes to regulation of claims, going through the approval process with the Food and Drug Administration might not be important to consumers. In fact, she noted the F.D.A. has not received any health claim petitions or qualified health claim petitions recently. She said this may indicate the process is too complicated and long, and manufacturers might not be getting a return on their investment.

"There may not be this need to go through that long health claim process knowing that consumers prefer the shorter, simpler, positive language," Ms. Reinhardt Kapsak said. "However, it is important to consumers to still invest in the research necessary to substantiate the claim."

Ms. Reinhardt Kapsak said the longer a diet and health relationship has been around, the more likely consumers are to have heard the message and the more likely multiple sources have been talking about it. She also said the more likely consumers are to know about the relationship, the more likely they are to believe the relationship in fact exists and therefore the more likely they are to be consuming the nutrient for the relationship.

"We hear from consumers time and time again they prefer simple, positive language, and that’s evidenced by our research, which shows consumers prefer structure/function language in many cases because it doesn’t mention disease and speaks from a point of view of health versus a point of view of disease," Ms. Reinhardt Kapsak said.

She noted one exception to the negative connotations of diseases in label claims is heart disease. She said consumers aren’t adverse to hearing messages about heart disease because they have heard about it for so long from many sources.

"Heart disease claims seem to be interesting to people," Ms. Davis said. "It’s also the thing that tops the list of their health concerns."

According to Mintel International, Chicago, there were 46 products introduced in 2007 with bone health claims, up from 17 in 2006. In addition, there have been 57 such introductions for the first six months of this year. There were 143 digestive claims in the first six months of 2008, which compared with 132 in all of 2007 and 52 in 2006.

Data from The Nielsen Co., New York, indicate sales for products with the claim "excellent source of calcium" in channels excluding Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. grew 5% to $2,289,550,831 for the year ended July 12, and sales for products with the claim "good source of calcium" were up 4% to $3,315,388,758 during the same period. During the previous year, sales for the "good source" claim were up 10%.

In addition, sales for the claim "excellent source of fiber" were up 12% to $463,847,171 for the year ended July 12, according to Nielsen. During the previous year, sales for products with this claim grew 34%. Sales for products with reduced calorie claims were up 7% to $4,196,648,198 for the year.

Finding ways to cue consumers

While experts agree consumers are paying attention and the numbers of claims are increasing, Ms. Demeritt questioned whether traditional health and label claims are the best way to reach consumers.

"(Consumers) are sort of starting to just look for quality cues rather than another claim slapped across the label," Ms. Demeritt said. "Meaning if they can see it’s a higher quality product because it’s local or seasonal or organic or sustainable, there are a host of other attributes they associate with that product."

Specifically, Ms. Demeritt said the cues include visual pictures of raw ingredients, white space on packing and a short ingredient list. She said even if the product looks fresher due to the way it is packaged, that is also a cue consumers are paying attention to.

"There are other ways that we believe are much easier to get in the consumer mind space of ‘this product is healthy for me’ than just trying to fit more words on the label," Ms. Demeritt said.

Ms. Demeritt said the other cues are important as health claims are often rapidly changing. She noted one product line that does this particularly well is Tropicana Pure from PepsiCo, Purchase, N.Y., as the front-of-pack labeling shows pictures of the ingredients used to make the juice with relatively few words on the package. She also said Clif Nectar from Clif Bar and Co., Berkeley, Calif., is a product using just a few ingredients that consumers understand and may pronounce, another positive cue.

"For manufacturers it’s very difficult to keep up if your strategy is to just to slap a new health claim on your package because you would have to change it every six months," Ms. Demeritt said. "So we would say rather than that, look toward the long term, understand how consumers are interpreting things around the packaging and product leading them to believe it’s healthy, thereby not having to change your package all the time."

Ms. Demeritt said traditional health claims aren’t necessarily negative, but with consumers having such a short amount of time to make purchasing decisions there are a lot of things competing for their attention. So consumers often prefer to find other types of cues that are easy to understand and don’t require the due-diligence of much reading.

Ms. Demeritt also noted with many consumers health and wellness isn’t condition specific but rather a general source of well-being and day-to-day concerns such as stress, energy level and weight management. She said these claims have a generally broader appeal.

She added that the main confusion with health claims is there are just too many and they change quickly. She said the gut reaction of many in the industry is to just try to provide more education, but this often makes things even more confusing.

"We are going about it the wrong way by believing we can keep putting these long technical, clinical or scientific stories on the label when consumers want to see just a story about the origin of where the product came from or a picture of the producer or a special ingredient," Ms. Demeritt said.

She said it’s not a question of giving more information and education but rather better ways to communicate without consumers having to spend more time and energy trying to figure out what the benefit is.

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