Selling science is an alternative to simplicity

by Keith Nunes
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Food and beverage product developers and marketers find themselves in difficulty as the simple label trend continues to evolve. At a time when a plethora of innovative ingredient technologies exists to improve the function, shelf life and nutritional content of products, product development teams are somewhat hamstrung by the need to limit labeling terminology to the fewest and simplest terms. The limitations are also creating unintended consequences.

Douglas A. Balentine, director of nutrition sciences for Unilever Americas, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., outlined the quandary product developers face when he spoke at a July 18 education session during I.F.T. 10, the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition. He sees a trend developing where a step like removing preservatives in order to create a product with a simple label brings about a need to add sodium.

Mr. Balentine gave an example of Unilever’s Brummel & Brown yogurt brand. Unilever wanted the product to meet the requirements for acceptance in Whole Foods stores, but that required taking out preservatives and then increasing the sodium content by 20% to 30%.

“Do you take out a very small amount of preservatives that is making the product stable and keeping down sodium content?” he asked.

The simple label trend is gaining momentum because food and beverage manufacturers are responding to what they perceive to be increased consumer demand for these products. Such a perception is grounded in data provided by research firms such as Mintel International Ltd. For example, Mintel reports consumers have negative associations with many ingredients they view as unnatural, with 42% of consumers believing high-fructose corn syrup promotes obesity and 31% of consumers say they usually look for beverages that do not have H.F.C.S. Food service chains, such as Starbucks, Taco Bell and Jamba Juice, are contributing to the perception of H.F.C.S. by highlighting menu items that are free of the sweetener even though there is no evidence to support consumer beliefs about the ingredient.

But food manufacturers need to understand the potential consequences of adopting a strategy that focuses on the development of products that will have simple labels. The shift to developing and heavily promoting products with simple labels, such as the Haagen-Dazs Five line of products, has the potential to harm a company’s core business because consumers may wonder what the difference is between an original product and the reformulated, “simpler” alternative.

There is usually no difference in the quality or nutritional attributes of an original product and one that has been reformulated with the goal of featuring a shorter, easier to understand ingredients list. Rather than focus on developing products with simple labels, food companies may find it more beneficial to give consumers more information about the ingredients and processes used in the making of food and beverage products.

Processed foods have revolutionized eating in much of the world by making products more nutritious, by extending the availability of required foodstuffs such as fruit and vegetables to regions as well as countries that may not have had year-round access to such goods, and by offering products in a huge variety of forms fitting the diverse lifestyles of consumers. There is a great and positive story to be told regarding the science that goes into improving the quality and safety of processed foods.

For food manufacturers finding themselves challenged to develop products that fit the simple label trend, it may be equally worthwhile to highlight the value new ingredient technologies are adding to their products. Consumer perceptions are shaped by marketing and messaging, and for companies willing to make the effort benefits may be realized by openly discussing the science and technologies that go into their products.

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