(New)trition Labels

Though perhaps unconventional, one way a curious observer might monitor modern food trends is by studying the evolution of the nutrition information label on packaged foods. First mandated by the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, the latest chapter for the familiar black and white box will take effect by July 2018. Stalwarts against change might initially bristle at the news, but besides the new labels being yet another reminder that certainty can only be found in death and taxes, such a decree from the FDA merits further examination.

So what is going to change? Well, a few different things. To begin, the calorie count will be featured more prominently and in larger font. Though calorie count in itself is not indicative of a product’s health, for those who are calorie-conscious, the large font will be easy to see. Also, the serving size will change to better reflect what a normal person actually consumes in a serving. For example, ice cream will change from ½ cup to 2/3 a cup and soda will change from an 8 ounce serving size to a 12 ounce.  Which makes sense, because who stops drinking a can of soda 2/3 of the way through?

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U.S. Food and Drug Administration

The idea behind both of these changes is that the nutrition label should be there to help consumers manage their consumption and make it easier to interpret the numbers on the package. Doing mental math when a child is screaming and the ice cream is melting, and getting out of the store in ten minutes to make it home in time to get dinner started can be taxing. The new labels hope to streamline the process.

Further, the requirements for which vitamins need to be included on the package have changed, swapping out vitamins A and C for D and potassium. Back in the 90’s, Americans were lacking in A and C, but recent studies on food consumption have pointed out that deficiencies lay in other categories these days. The reasoning here is that people generally consume enough A and C, but need to be more mindful of their D and potassium consumption. Calcium and iron will stay put.

Of the proposed changes, the most debated is the requirement for specifically calling out added sugars from the total sugar amount. This decision stirred up some rumbling among food companies who argued that sugar is sugar and therefore, calling out added sugars is redundant. However, health advocates applaud the change, standing firm in the assertion that added sugars (as opposed to naturally occurring sugars) are a hidden danger to the health of the population.

The inclusion of added sugars took off in the anti-fat trends of the recent past (think anything “lite”), and have hung around even as fat has gained somewhat of a recovery in the public eye. Now, health professionals hope to draw attention to the empty calories associated with added sugars, which, unlike naturally occurring sugars that usually come along with vitamins and nutrients, offer no nutritional benefit whatsoever. Dairy products have naturally occurring sugars, so do fruits; pop does not. The FDA’s new rules aim at giving customers more knowledge about what they are consuming so that they can make the best choices for them and their loved ones.

The goal of the change in nutrition labels is to help consumers make good decisions based on current diet and consumption patterns. Time will tell if the intended impact comes to fruition, but the desire of the FDA to use data of current consumption as a basis for reformatting shows a desire to adapt regulations as the general public evolves. Time will also tell if the new labels have an effect on not only health, but purchase behavior. Will new nutrition labels affect FOP call-outs? Will they force a change in product formulation? Will they have an impact at all? Good questions. Time (and good research) will tell.

-Sierra Dooley, Research Associate and Mary Dolan O’Brien, Project Coordinator

The Future is Now, and It’s Focusing on Food

Shoppers paying more attention to what is in their food is not a new revelation; it’s a trend that has been growing in popularity for quite some time and has been influential in any number of products that have been rolled out recently. Target Corp. is taking this want for transparency a step farther in their new, multi-year collaboration with design firm IDEO and MIT’s Media Lab. In January 2016, they collaboratively launched the Food + Future coLab which will explore urban farming, food transparency and authenticity, and health.

Recently launched in a test store at a Fenway Target in Boston, the coLab-created Good & Gather initiative aims to capitalize on transparency by reimagining traditional food labels. Instead of listing ingredients on the back of packaging as they have been traditionally, they are being displayed on the front. The second concept allows consumers to scan produce and learn information about it in real time. As this technology develops, it will be interesting to see how food companies will react to a transparency they may not have been prepared for. How will products and packaging adapt to a food space that goes beyond the characteristics that currently aid in shopability? Research will be imperative as our interaction with food becomes more and more entwined with technological advances. Though we are heading into territories that are new and largely unexplored, the opportunity for innovation will be an exciting development to watch.

-Tyler McGruder, Research Assistant

Additive Subtraction

If we are what we eat, it makes sense that consumers can be choosy when it comes to what they put into their bodies. Clean ingredient decks are in; preservatives, processed foods, and additives are out. While some shoppers adhere to the healthy eating trend by avoiding the interior aisles of the supermarket, others do so by selecting stores that carry organic or health foods, and others still examine ingredient lists, looking for predetermined disqualifying additions or simply seeking components with which they are familiar. The common rule of thumb for these consumers being, “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it!”.

This particular line of thought inspired photographer Dwight Eschliman and writer Steve Ettliner to diver deeper into these unpronounceable additives with the hopes of turning questions into answers and confusion into clarity. Their new book, Ingredients, does just this—cataloging and studying 75 common food additives, and placing them into one of three categories: neutral, negative, and positive. In her article for NPR about the book, ‘Ingredients’: An Eye-Opening Look At The Additives In Our Food, Tove Danovich explores some of the more surprising findings including the misconstruction of MSG, the misinformation regarding the “yoga mat chemical,” and which food additive was near impossible for the authors to acquire for their study (spoiler alert: high fructose corn syrup). The book’s overall conclusion is that additives are not necessarily as scary and harmful as the majority of consumers may believe. Yes, some are found in non-food entities as well, but that does not mean they are unsafe for human consumption or unnecessary in food.

These conclusions are interesting when viewed in conjunction with big food companies phasing out artificial colors and flavors from their products in response to public outcry. Would demystifying be an acceptable replacement for withdrawal in the arena of additives? The book aims to erase question marks in favor of accurate explanations, but its impact will only go as far as people are willing to listen. Saying goodbye to blue Trix seems worth it if that removal betters your health, but if an additive is neutral, is it worth removing? While it is hard to imagine launching a successful campaign to keep all additives in food, the potential brought by unmasking these types of ingredients is intriguing.

Consumers (yes, even us) are fickle and perception becomes reality. For companies, there can exist a conflict of interest between profitability and “doing the right thing” which, with the help of a plethora of well-know examples (seen most recently with Volkswagen) perpetuates skepticism and limits what CPG companies can do to counteract negative perceptions of certain “okay” ingredients. As is the nature of trends, some pass quickly, some plant roots as cultural mainstays, and some will fall somewhere in between; companies will do well to regain and maintain their consumers’ trust during these ebbs and flows of trends. Engaging with customers through ongoing co-creation and intuition-building initiatives, while also appealing to them publicly through social media and community engagement, will allow for a more transparent dialogue between company, product, and purchaser.

-Mary Dolan O’Brien, Project Coordinator