Trending toward transparency

by Keith Nunes
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Transparency is becoming the cornerstone of the clean, simple label trend. Many consumers want to know more about what ingredients make up the food and beverages they consume, but they also want the information communicated to them in an easy-to-understand, convenient manner.

Data from the International Food Information Council’s Food & Health Survey highlight the insight that most consumers are turning to the ingredients panel to learn what a product contains. Since IFIC started conducting its Food & Health Survey it has asked consumers to identify the information they value on food and beverage product labels. According to the 2010 survey, the portions of the label consumers watch include the Nutrition Facts Panel (68%), the expiration date (66%), the brand (50%) and that is followed by the ingredients panel at 47%. The percentage of survey respondents who said they regularly review a product’s ingredients panel has fallen steadily since 2006. That year 67% of respondents said they review what a product is made with.

As the Food & Health Survey has evolved, IFIC has added additional questions, such as asking those consumers who use the ingredients panel to list the types of ingredients they look for on the panel. In 2010, consumers said they look for the type of fat or oil (62%), followed by sweeteners (59%) and natural ingredients (54%).

“The trend is much more about the naturalness of products as opposed to the specifics of the ingredients on the label,” said Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight for Mintel International, Chicago. “It is also more about what is on the front of a package than what is on the back.”

Ms. Dornblaser pointed to products such as Häagen-Dazs’ Five line and General Mills’ Simply GoGurt products as examples of how food and beverage companies have capitalized on consumer demand for ingredients information presented in a simple, clear manner.

With the introduction of the Five line of products in early 2009, Häagen-Dazs, a brand owned by Nestle USA, Oakland, Calif., brought the simple labeling trend to the fore. On the front of each package of Five, just below the brand name, is a list of the five ingredients that make up the product.

Citing Mintel data, Ms. Dornblaser noted that 45% of U.S. consumers said that simple, easy-to-read packages without a lot of clutter is “very important” and 39% of consumers said they found it to be “somewhat important.”

“The trend ties in less to specific language and more to the overall look of the package,” she said.

Pillsbury, a brand owned by General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, has taken the simple labeling trend a step further with its “Simply …” product line. On the front of each package the company uses images of flour, eggs and sugar to highlight the ingredients that are in the product, but Pillsbury also uses text to highlight what is not in the product, such as trans fatty acids, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.

“When you see products such as Pillsbury … Simply cookies, they are taking the idea of clean labeling beyond the package and into how they talk about the product,” Ms. Dornblaser said. “They are reinforcing the naturalness of the product and highlighting the ingredients some consumers may consider unnatural. This is a part of the trend U.S. food companies have jumped on strongly.”

As the trend evolves, Ms. Dornblaser believes that the packaging art and language on food and beverage products may become much shorter and simpler, and manufacturers will find ways to ensure they provide consumers who are interested with a full list of additional information.

“I think what we are going to see is much more information provided by companies regarding what is in their products,” Ms. Dornblaser said. “A product may feature an all natural claim, but the company may provide a way for consumers to gather more information about the ingredients that support the natural claim.”

The idea of providing more information to consumers is not new. Food and beverage companies have made use of the Internet for years as a vehicle to communicate directly with interested consumers. In an effort to differentiate themselves, several small- and mid-size meat and poultry companies, for example, have introduced lines of products with which consumers may visit the company’s web site, enter a product code and learn from which farm the product came from.

In 2008, Gold’n Plump Poultry, St. Cloud, Minn., introduced its Just Bare line of natural poultry in major retail outlets such as SuperTarget. The product’s packaging features a small label that allows consumers to get a better view of the product they are buying. In addition, each package features a code consumers who visit the company’s web site may use to identify the farm in which the chicken came from.

In mid-October, the Silk Soymilk brand, which is a division of Dean Foods Co., Dallas, created a new web site with the address of Similar to the process purchasers of the Just Bare product line may use, consumers of Silk may visit the web site, enter the product’s manufacturing code and expiration date and learn the origin of the soybeans in each carton down to the county level.

“Silk continues to broaden our commitment to transparency when it comes to how our products are made and where our ingredients come from,” said Craig Shiesley, vice-president of Silk.

The company also is using the traceability effort to highlight its participation in the Non-GMO Project, a set of standards established to verify products have met the standards for the absence of bioengineered ingredients.

Ms. Dornblaser sees this trend evolving quickly as smart phones become more ubiquitous among consumers.

“For products that use codes that must be entered into a web site, I question how effective that may be,” she said. “Consumers are being asked to sit down at a computer, visit a web site and then enter a code. I think with the way phone technology is changing, consumers will be able to get that additional information immediately. They may use their phone to scan a bar code on a product and have an opportunity to review the information they are most interested in. It’s a brilliant concept, because it gives the consumers who want the information what they need and it does not clutter the package with additional information or claims.”

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