Healthy Versus “Healthy”

The New York Times recently released an article detailing the differences between what nutritionists think is healthy versus what the general public believes is better for you. While a difference between the public and nutritionists is to be expected, NYT discovered quite a disparity in ranking within each group as well. Certain foods obviously ranked high (e.g. kale, chicken, oranges) and others were solidly in the low camp (e.g. chocolate chip cookies, white bread). The most interesting, however, are the foods that divided the public and nutritionists and just how those perceptions came to be.

Overwhelmingly, granola bars were the food that most divided the public from expert opinions, with 71% of consumer ranking them as “healthy” versus 28% of nutritionists. Granola, too, fell into a similar disparity, with 80% of the public ranking it has healthy versus 47% of experts. On the opposite side, 89% of nutritionists ranked quinoa as “healthy” while only 58% of the public agreed. So, where do these divisions come from?

On the quinoa side, it is probably safe to say that as an upcoming “superfood,” there is a large percent of the population that is still unfamiliar with the product (or stopped trying after being unable to figure out how to pronounce it).  Granola and granola bars, however, have been a “healthy” snack that has been popular for years and continues to find itself a staple in many American pantries.  Being that what is “healthy” and what is not flip-flops on nearly a daily basis, it is safe to say that marketing plays a considerable role in these public perceptions.  And by what we’re seeing here with public opinion, it’s working.

As a market research firm, REAL Insight is well versed in what cues “healthy” to a consumer and what will lead them to think the opposite. There is certain language and positioning that paints products in the perfect light that assures shoppers feel that what they are purchasing is good for them. Granola bars are a good example of a product that highlights the right qualities to appeal to its target audience.

While one could criticize the health halo that granola has granted itself, there is a second, perhaps more important takeaway from this survey. There are healthy and nutritional items that the public can purchase and consume. However, without cues as to how these items will benefit the consumer or assuage a need, their chances of going into the cart are slim. Where a box of granola bars will have claims leaping off the package about its benefits, a bulk bag of quinoa never will. Though as of today, only 58% of the public see quinoa as healthy, time (and marketing) will tell how that perception may change.

-Sarah Morrison, Communication Strategist & Mary Dolan O’Brien, Project Coordinator

(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?

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

Fat, Salt, and Sugar: Together Again.

Margarine is good. Margarine is bad. Diet soda is the key to weight loss. Diet soda will give you cancer. Fat free is the way to be. Fat is your friend. No sugar. Yes sugar, no high fructose corn syrup. Hooray for cane sugar!

Exhausted yet?

When it comes to defining what is “healthy,” the pendulum swings one way and then back again, leaving marketers and food executives frustrated as they try to figure out what consumers want and are willing to buy. In her article, “Foods Loaded With Sugar, Salt, and Fat? Bring It,” Stephanie Strom examines the latest public opinion around diet options. Ingredients that spent years on the blacklist are now back with a vengeance, IF their reemergence on the scene is in the right context. Examples of this include dark chocolate, jerky, and full fat ice cream. Foods that, in the not too distant past, were seen as unhealthy, are now back due to the increase in consumer demand stemming, in part, from new scientific studies that show fat, salt, and sugar are not black and white issues.

Food companies who spent years reducing or eliminating these three ingredients from their products must now dig up old recipes or re-position existing foods to meet new consumer ideas of what constitutes “healthy.” Jerky is capitalizing on the protein trend and has achieved great success as the protein content and “real food” benefits outweigh any fat or salt concern among consumers. Edy’s ice cream is bolstering their full fat varieties and making them with fewer ingredients, and shoppers are cheering all the way to the checkout counter. While the context of ingredients is key, the ingredients themselves (Are they familiar names? Can I pronounce them? Do I know what the ingredients are?) and the taste of the final product are just as important.

Understanding consumer desire is not a new topic for market research. However, the return to full fat, salt, and real sugar is a signal that sometimes returning to the roots is more beneficial than constantly innovating what’s new and next. Innovation for the sake of innovation can lose sight of what’s most important: what the consumer is wanting. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, perhaps it is time to re-purpose it to align with consumer demand, thus allowing for the option of a whole category’s rejuvenation.

Posted By: Jessica Fisher, Project Director

Organic on Demand

The consumer call for organic food has been heard. Grocery chains throughout metropolitan areas are ramping up their organic offerings, though some rural areas have been left wanting. New Prague, Minnesota is a town of about 7500 that sits 45 miles southeast of Minneapolis, and is one of those locations whose organic options were limited. Motivated by a desire to have local, organic produce available in town, Kendra and Paul Rasmussen decided to find a way to bring natural, organic foods to their community.

After some difficulties navigating licensing and finding suppliers, that idea is now a reality—Farmhouse Market garnered the support from 230 members in just its first four months of existence. Membership costs $99 a year (and includes 24 hour access via a key card a la 24 hours gyms), and the market is also open to non-members about 9 hours a week. The owners use technology to monitor stock levels from home, which allows them to reach out to suppliers sooner when supplies are low. Farmers and suppliers have their own key cards to ease their deliveries to fit into any schedule.

Though a success in New Prague, questions arise regarding the transferability of the model. What works for a small town with a lot of industry and surrounded by farmstead, might not garner the same results in a different environment. Still, the success of the model should be acknowledged by other small communities that see price as the biggest barrier to having local, organic, and natural foods available in their own communities.

Market research companies are required to keep an eye on the ever-changing markets we study. Farmhouse Market is both a great example of the importance of organic foods to consumers at this time and as well as the growing influence technology has on how they can shop. The model itself is intriguing to study: by filling in gaps of existing grocery options in New Prague, Farmhouse Market is growing and succeeding. But what is still missing? How could this model be implemented in other demographic locations? As the traditional grocery store itself changes, so too do the competing options. The self-serve model of this store is intriguing and should be monitored as it develops, especially if the model takes root elsewhere.

-Sierra Dooley, Research Associate

Your Macaroni Isn’t What You Think It Is

In a surprising announcement, Kraft has revealed that their most loyal customers have been purchasing a new formula of the “Blue Box” macaroni and cheese they’ve loved for decades. The biggest revelation from this announcement? Barely anyone has noticed.

History has shown that when a new formula for a favorite product is unveiled, there’s often a backlash that may or may not be warranted (see: New Coke). When Kraft Heinz decided to remove the artificial preservatives and dyes from one of their top-selling products, they decided to keep it relatively quiet. They made a small announcement and shortly after, customers were complaining that “they thought the mac and cheese tasted different when, in reality, they were still eating the previous version.” So after that initial announcement, KH didn’t say anything further about the new formula’s roll-out.

The new formula has been on shelves since December, and unless a shopper has been diligent about reading labels, the change has gone unnoticed until now, with Kraft Heinz’s launch of a campaign announcing the change. Time will tell how consumers will react to this news as the change becomes better known, but as it stands, shoppers have been eating the new formula with no complaint.

What is so fascinating here is that while consumers are requesting less artificial ingredients in their foods, companies are concerned that these same shoppers won’t be satisfied with the new products. Just knowing that a formula is “new” is enough for consumers to project a different taste, texture, and eating experience onto a product that may not even be there. As CPG companies start to consider reformulating their products to include more natural ingredients, perhaps they will follow the macaroni and cheese model and keep quiet about it as consumers acclimate to the new product. Shoppers want to consume products that are better for them; it just might be even better if they don’t know about it.

-Sarah Morrison, Research Associate

An EPIC Acquisition?

At the beginning of 2016, General Mills announced a new acquisition: EPIC Provisions, based out of Austin, TX. Committed to the tagline, “feed others as you wish to be fed,” EPIC began as a solution to the lack of packaged, animal protein bar options on the market. Founders Katie Forrest and Taylor Collins created their own bars combining meat and other ingredients as a savory counter to the sweet-granola-power-protein-bars so abundantly available at any retailer offering foodstuffs. Valuing humane treatment of the animals we eat, Forrest and Collins sought out responsible suppliers that raised grass-fed meat and were committed to the same ideals EPIC on which was founded. After the success of their initial bars, they expanded into other offerings, including trail mixes, and ultimately entered into a General Mills partnership.

Following in the footsteps of their 2014 purchase of Annie’s Homegrown, General Mills seems to be seeking out companies that focus on health, ingredients, and sourcing over profit. The purchase of both Annie’s and EPIC allows them to pivot their offerings toward growing customer demands, while still maintaining the products that made them one of the leading CPG companies that they are today. That’s not to say that General Mills hasn’t been trying to clean up the products they already offer; facing criticism for the ingredient decks of their cereals, the company has recently made over nearly all of its cereals so that they can now claim no artificial colors and flavors amongst their ingredients. Though admittedly just a drop in the bucket, the moves towards cleaning up their own products and acquiring companies with more holistic values are evidence that General Mills isn’t content to stick to “how we’ve always done it.”

That doesn’t mean there are not concerns as to how this will pan out moving forward. A growing company that is focused on grass-fed, humanely processed meat could run into trouble as sourcing becomes more and more difficult. Certain meats—like beef, chicken, and pork—have been the focus of humane treatment for quite some time, but not without various criticisms as to what that actually means in practice. While the methods of treatment for those animals evolve, diversifying animal protein sources is becoming more of an interest to consumers, and it’s difficult to determine what that will look like realistically and financially for companies as they expand their meaty horizons. For instance, The Honest Bison, which provides EPIC with their bison, uses ranchers that practice Holistic Management—a method that involves growing native grasses that are in turn used to feed the animals. It’s an admirable approach that seems entirely possible when you compare 500,000 bison to the 90 million cattle currently in the United States. But what happens if bison becomes a more appealing and sought after protein source? Turning bison into a commodity will abandon that which EPIC was based on by turning bison into cattle, and principle into profit.

This is not to doom EPIC from the get-go. Ideally, diversification of protein sources will allow for humane animal treatment to be more widespread and accessible, part of their initial goal from the start, and it is fascinating that General Mills is looking to involve themselves with companies that will not largely impact their financial profile, no matter how many new customers these smaller brands bring in. EPIC remains optimistic that “this acquisition is not about General Mills changing EPIC but rather EPIC changing General Mills,” and many hope that they are right. However, as more of these small-scale, hopeful operations become successful and more appealing to those with the capacity to buy them out, it will be interesting to track if their values will continue to align with the consumers who supported them from the start, or if they will diverge towards the thinking patterns of big business. Reading these trends and following the relationships of the little guys with their new owners will be important to understanding consumer perceptions and how far companies can go before losing their trust. What will be the opinions of EPIC’s original customers? How will new buyers react to their products?  Understanding the answers to these questions will be key in making sure this EPIC acquisition does not become an epic failure.

-Sarah Morrison, Research Associate/Creative Specialist

Perceiving is Believing

When it comes to product ingredients, thinking about how consumers perceive them can be more beneficial than solely focusing on “proven” health benefits. In his article Identifying Health Ingredients, Keith Nunes discusses how Canadean, a market research company, conducted a global survey asking consumers to evaluate 100 common ingredients. Respondents were asked to rank ingredients –including grains, fruits, vitamins, minerals, and sweeteners—based on their perceived benefits. In the United States, whole grains, blueberries, green tea, almonds, garlic, olive oil, brown rice, potassium, pomegranate, and Greek yogurt encompassed the top ten. Canadean speculated that Americans ranked whole grains first due to the positioning and language used to talk about them. Potassium ranked high in the US, but not in other countries, which the article attributes to the language used around coconut water in particular. Looking to the future of trending “healthy” ingredients, matcha was noted to be an upcoming potential fad. Matcha, a powdered version of green tea leaves, claims strong health benefits but is relatively unknown by most consumers at this point. As with any new ingredient trend, if consumers’ knowledge around this ingredient is low, then products containing it will have a lower perceived health benefit than the product may actually deliver.

As ingredient decks change and the desire for food transparency grows, it will be important to understand what ingredients consumers perceive as healthier and which are worth the added cost.  While the survey mentioned in this article is interesting, it lacks the essential component of why? Why do consumers perceive these ingredients as healthier than others? Why do the benefits of some ingredients seem apparent while others are more confusing? While the results are a good starting point, without answering the “whys,” companies are left with educated assumptions instead of the complete picture. For example, although green tea was ranked highly, it is not clear what benefit it communicates to consumers.  By answering why consumers see green tea as healthy, a company will have a much better foothold regarding if/how to implement these products.

Qualitative research is important because it helps to answer the “why?” and fills in the complete picture of consumer perceptions and desires. In providing these “whys”, companies are then able to make informed, strategic changes to their products/packaging that best communicate their benefits. It also allows for strategic cost/benefit analysis of adding newer or trending ingredients (i.e. are consumers willing to pay more for certain ingredients due to their perceived health benefits?). Having a conversation with consumers about products on shelf builds intuition about their current brands and products. That conversation is also essential in teasing out consumers’ perceptions, and, most importantly, fills in the “why?” behind those perceptions.

-Beth Wogen, Research Associate/Bilingual Coordinator

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