Food Labels Could Spur Unhealthy Eating Habits And Distrust

February 5, 2018 09:31 AM

Failure to market food in an attractive yet honest way will create long-term problems for food companies and other industry stakeholders, says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters and a leading consultant for foodservice manufacturers and operators.

Webster shared breakthrough research on the ways consumers respond to food labels during a breakfast session organized by Charleston|Orwig at the off-the-record Trust In Food™ Symposium this winter in Chicago. She was among more than 45 experts who spotlighted the alarming disconnect between consumers, farmers and the food system.  

Webster has spearheaded hundreds of major industry studies during her 17 years as a foodservice specialist and today runs a private consultancy focused on helping manufacturers and operators analyze, understand and leverage foodservice trends. She also owns a cafe in Bennington, Vt.

Trust In Food™ asked Webster to respond to several additional questions attendees raised at the Symposium with readers. Questions have been edited for grammar and clarity.

What is your take on some of these labeling claims and whether they create long-term trust among consumers?

“Unfortunately, I think consumers are fairly skeptical about labeling claims because of the confusion about what they mean (this is particularly true with organic, natural, etc., which now seem more like marketing terms than legitimate claims), who is really benefiting and whether there is any oversight regarding their use.

“Allergen information is likely the only exception, as that is straightforward and directly relevant to those with allergies. Additionally, I think larger manufacturers face greater skepticism about a range of labeling claims than do smaller manufacturers, who are considered inherently more trustworthy by many consumers. While I think the claims can gain short-term awareness and buzz, I think most have minimal impact on long-term trust and loyalty for the larger brands.”

How can farmers help consumers understand today’s practices as benefiting a higher purpose—or give them the “experience” they want?

“That is definitely the biggest challenge facing the industry given consumers' general lack of knowledge and comfort with any type of scientific discussion. First, everything needs to be discussed in laymen's terms as much as possible, but not to the degree that it seems the truth is being masked by dumbed down explanations.

“One thing I've discussed with family members who are farmers (dairy, cattle and produce) is that, at the most basic levels, farmers aren't going to do anything to the land or their animals—which are their source of income—that will harm them. Beyond ethics and humane practices, abusing your assets leads to financial loses that will put their family at risk. Much of this discussion needs to be put into personal terms to humanize the process as much as possible.

“But there will be no avoiding the challenges in a discussion that will need to broach the science aspects, regardless of the end results and how they benefit consumers.”

Has the move to natural, real food, functional foods, etc., had a positive impact on obesity or other health indicators?

“The answer is categorically no, or we wouldn't still be talking about the obesity issue in this country. Unfortunately, that issue is never broken down into more specific terms that should be addressed on a local and state level, as that discussion will start to push against other sensitive topics.

“I think the reality is that these issues have actually exacerbated the already large nutrition and health gap between higher-income and lower-income consumers. All of these terms and issues typically come with higher price tags that are just outside the reach of many Americans who likely are suffering from higher rates of obesity and health issues.

“Additionally, the trendiness of some of these functional issues is likely going to lead to other health issues, such as eating too much protein for a consumer's activity level, drinking too much culinary charcoal or other specialty ingredients, etc.”

How can companies with millions of organic egg sales continue to claim that small farms are better?

“A company with 150 million in organic eggs, for example, is likely far smaller than a larger player in conventional or non-organic eggs.

“Put in another way, Samuel Adams advertises itself essentially as a specialty or micro/boutique brewer despite its national presence. But when you look at their market share against the largest brands, they are actually quite small.

“Another example, until recently, is Whole Foods, which seemed to be able to position itself as the boutique supermarket supporting small farms, which is far from the truth—but when compared with conventional supermarkets and corporate farming concerns, it was truthful (to a degree). Consumers need to be able to put this type of information into perspective.

“Also, any conversation about farming needs to include the information that many times, while the company or coop might be dealing with huge volume, that is often a result of many much smaller farming concerns contributing to it.

“Helping consumers connect the dots back to the smallest common denominator in the equation will help to make farm operations seem far more human and approachable.

How many “certified” labels are actually legitimate?

“It's hard to say categorically, but it's certainly a mixed bag. There are legitimate organizations out there (USDA Organic, for example), but many are truly marketing tools with no governing body behind them to confirm compliance.

Are there any indications, with abundant certifications, that consumers are experiencing fatigue?

“I've read some studies on how the over-use of organic certifications has led to fatigue as well as some distrust. There was a study done in Florida that showed consumers were more likely to pay more for non-GMO labeled products than organic products even though organic products are inherently non-GMO. That only serves to highlight a lack of consumer understanding of the certification and confusion over a broad and somewhat ambiguous term as organic. Non-GMO, on the other hand, is very direct and specific, so consumers can wrap their head around it more easily.

Have we gotten so far away from the farm, which most of our great-grandparents raised and processed, that we no longer know who to ask or to trust?

“I think that's a very fair statement. There are many anecdotal stories about how kids in the city have no idea where produce comes from and, when faced with the actual plant and process, it's almost beyond comprehension. Furthermore, there are countless players in the industry, from boutique to multi-national manufacturers, commodity boards, advocacy groups, mommy blogs, celebrity chefs, etc., all with divergent and often competing agendas.

“Couple this with the penchant for consumers to seek out information that confirms currently held beliefs and it becomes difficult to break through the noise or to prove that yours is a source both unbiased and trustworthy.”

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