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?

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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