Avoiding mixed messages on front-of-package labels

by Keith Nunes
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It is ironic that as many food and beverage companies work to simplify product ingredient labels by removing ingredients negatively perceived by consumers, they also are facing the challenge of communicating an array of positive messages on front-of-package labels. In the latter effort the focus is on presenting information that is seen as desirable to consumers, relating to subjects like raw material source, nutrition quality, functional health benefits and environmental sustainability. Compounding the complexity of the issue is the renewed focus by litigators and government regulators on the accuracy of the messages that food companies are presenting to consumers.

The appearance of front-of-package labels communicating positive benefits is not a new phenomenon. In the past, the emphasis has been on fortification with a nutrient or products that featured the removal of an ingredient or attribute, such as low-fat or non-fat, for example. More recent claims include reduced sodium and zero trans fatty acids.

Today, messaging may focus on an array of topics, including a product’s carbon footprint, calories per portion size as well as functional claims regarding brain health, digestive health or developing a strong immune system, to name just a few.

With regard to functional products, Ewa Hudson, head of health and wellness research for Euromonitor International, predicts functional claims may become even more specific in the future. In mid-November during a presentation at the SupplySide West exposition in Las Vegas, she said manufacturers of products featuring probiotics for digestive health may soon start including the colony forming units of the beneficial bacteria contained within a package on labels in an effort to differentiate their products and demonstrate the product’s effectiveness.

While the trend toward providing consumers with more information on front-of-package labels about the varied benefits of food and beverage products is positive, it also is fraught with pitfalls as outside interests assess the accuracy of the claims. During the past few months several companies have chosen to remove or alter front-of-package claims deemed as misleading by local, state or federal officials. The Kellogg Co., for example, recently chose to discontinue the

immunity statements on Kellogg’s Rice Krispies cereals after the City Attorney of San Francisco expressed concern the messaging may have misled parents into believing that serving the cereal may boost their child’s immunity.

Most notably, the companies that participated in the Smart Choices front-of-package labeling program chose to discontinue the use of the label after the Food and Drug Administration announced it was analyzing ‍front‍-‍of‍-‍package labels that appear to be misleading and also was looking for symbols that may be considered nutrient content claims. To ensure consumers are not confused or misled by ‍front‍-‍of‍-‍package symbols, the F.D.A. also is developing a regulation proposal that would define the nutritional criteria that must be met by food companies making ‍front‍-‍of‍-‍package claims about a product’s nutritional quality.

The scrutiny being given to front-of-package labeling by both manufacturers and regulators highlights how the trend of convenience has transcended the process of getting a foodstuff from the package to the plate quickly. Not only do consumers not want to spend a significant amount of time preparing a meal, most also do not want to spend a great deal of time comparing Nutrition Facts Panels.

Without doubt, some manufacturers will want to include many claims on front-of-package labels to highlight the benefits of their products. But companies would be well advised to consider how consumer preference for clean labels and simplicity has affected product formulation trends. Too much information may be counter-productive and even considered inconvenient.

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