Food for thought

Healthy foods are high on consumers’ agenda, but brands could do much more to inform the public about the nutritional content of their shopping baskets and keep their messages consistent

Health is high on the consumer agenda and brands are taking action. Walkers Snacks has announced that it has created a new marketing role for its “healthy snacking” brand portfolio (MW July 26) to push healthier products that earmarked for launch in the category later this year.

So what are consumer perceptions around healthy foods? As a result of food manufacturers’ increased interest in developing healthy products MSTS carried out research to assess how well received healthier food products and the messages promoting them are received by consumers.

Although the healthy message has got through with more than 60% of consumers saying the healthiness of the food was the most important criteria when deciding what to buy (with value for money at 51%), consumers are increasingly confused about which messages to believe.

Messages about what is healthy constantly change and cause confusion. Responses included: “Virtually every other day there is something in the newspapers or on the news” and “We’re being bombarded”. Most consumers claim to be eating a more healthy diet, with 82% of respondents saying they try to eat healthy foods. But women feel foods that were once considered healthy are now un-healthy, while issues surrounding additives and Superfoods are confusing consumers: “It used to be about additives, now it’s about Superfoods, but the additives debate is coming back,” said one respondent.

Consumers say they want to be given credit for their ability to provide a healthy diet for themselves. Respondents say that stories around these reinforce what they already know “with a bit of extra information”. And, as a result, many consumers reject key messages. “I pay no attention to those whatsoever because there are so many stories saying they are good for you and then a year later a story comes out saying eat too much of that and you’ll get something bad,” was one response from the survey. There is spontaneous awareness of “Superfoods” such as beetroot, pomegranate, acai berries and blueberries – with 27% of respondents saying they eat them – and of foods considered to be healthy such as oily fish and wholemeal. However, there is confusion about how much of these they could or should eat and how these might counteract any negative effects of less healthy foods.

Eating organic is not a priority for most consumers. When considering what was most important for following a healthy diet, 6% choose eating organic food, significantly trailing eating a balanced diet (74%), eating less convenience food (59%), eating foods which are lower in salt and hydrogenated fats (58%), lower in sugar (47%), and behind including Superfoods in your diet (18%).

Consumers have many questions about the whole issue. What exactly is organic? Is it really worth the money? And is it healthier than non-organic? The prevailing attitude is one of common sense and the old adage of “everything in moderation” with the idea that “a bar of chocolate every now and again isn’t going to kill you”.

Consumers, especially women, say retailers and manufacturers should take the lead with regard to healthier food and giving consumers information to make an informed choice. This could be in the form of a quick checklist with the key facts on what constitutes a “portion” of fruit and vegetables for instance.

While 88% of consumers say food labelling influences the foods they buy, 47% of respondents say GDA/nutrient labels and figures were too complicated in their current form. If these could be simplified it would be a great help. Respondents comments include: “They seem to assume that you are calculating your consumption throughout the day” and “It’s great if you can go round the shop noting everything down, but it’s not like that.”

The survey shows that consumers think retailers have a responsibility for greater transparency about the food that they sell, such as how long fresh produce is in stores before being out on the shopfloor. Consumers also criticise supermarkets for encouraging healthy eating, while offering deals on unhealthy foods at the same time.

Better food labelling was welcomed, particularly if it made the content of products more transparent. Consumers believe manufacturers have a responsibility to make their products healthier, particularly in terms of reducing fat, salt and the use of additives. They also feel that manufacturers can mislead with their claims; the immediate response to “low fat” on a pack was “high in sugar”.

It seems, therefore, that the healthy food message is getting through to consumers, but there remains a great deal of confusion over which messages to take on board. Food brands would be well advised to simplify their package labelling to help consumers make the healthier choices they desire. 

Jerry Thomas, managing director MSTS, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight