Opinion: mixed health messages and fresh produce opportunities - FreshFruitPortal.com

Opinion: mixed health messages and fresh produce opportunities

Most Read Opinion Top Stories
Opinion: mixed health messages and fresh produce opportunities

By Greenscans co-founder and BerryBroad Juanita Gaglio

A popular fast food chain introduces “healthy” oatmeal to its breakfast menu,  some consumers substitute fat free salad dressings, while other generously pour canned or bottled tomato sauce over their pasta. Many of us believe that we are making healthy food choices when we substitute the “perceived” healthier item over a carbohydrate and sugar laden munchy.  What many consumers don’t realize are the hidden sugars in their perceived healthier food choice.  Many of these foods have been “outed,” once the food scientist discovers that they contain more sugar than a Snickers bar (30 grams of sugar) or a Twinkie (18 grams of sugar).

Have you tried reading a food label lately?   Unless you are a member of Weight Watchers or belong to Mensa, you won’t entirely understand it.  Weight Watchers has done a tremendous job in educating those who are serious about shedding and maintaining their weight. There are just so many mixed messages on food labels that just because a product says “natural” this does not necessarily mean that it is “organic.”   What about all the promises to “boost our immune system?”

For all of today’s  ubiquitous healthy choices, in retrospect, not much has changed, when we look at what the most popular food items were in the 1950s; hamburgers and hot dogs ruled, with McDonald’s making its debut in 1955. The casserole dish was a popular staple in U.S. homes. Remember Swanson TV dinners?

Fast forward several decades and McDonald’s still reigns king, but consumers want to balance food choices with a sprinkling of organic and immune enhancers. Food manufacturers market food with healthy adjectives to describe products.  However, there is a fine blur between organic and conventional foods as more products are touted as organic, while perhaps containing only a minimum of organic ingredients.   This has become so commonplace that food manufacturers routinely receive warning letters from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to correct misleading food claims, with 17 major food manufacturers cited in March 2010. In California, class action lawsuits for misleading food claims, are filed daily, with an improper labeling claim costing the manufacturer hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

As far back as 1971, The Center for Science in the Public Interest was founded, in the U.S, as a non-profit organization to provide consumers with current information in the areas of nutrition, food safety, and alcoholic beverages. Since 2010 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has taken food manufacturers to task on misleading food labeling.  A prime example at what is being targeted is “Made with whole wheat” claims without disclosing the percentage of whole grains actually in the product.

Driving the need for better food labeling is the global decline in health with obesity related illnesses.  As the food chain becomes increasingly global, so has the food labeling question.  When a U.S. consumer looks at a packaged item, it used to be in both Spanish and English. Today it is not uncommon to find that same item in French as well.

The question of “fair food labeling” is being tackled both in the U.S and European Union at government levels.   In the U.S, two organizations, the FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), are only as good as Congress supports them with sufficient resources.  The European Union initiative is being led by a private consulting group working closely with the EU regulators, retailers, industry representatives and food manufacturers.

While consumers need to improve their diets through making better purchase choices, what do they rely on for sound decisions?  For the time being, the internet, with smartphone apps passing internet searches on product information.   However, some supermarkets have seized this as an opportunity to connect with the consumer by providing information, rating the level of healthy items with a rating or star system.  We are still a ways from labels that are easy-to-read with scientifically valid nutrition and health information that help to educate the consumer to make healthier food choices.

A huge game changer is the proliferation of apps that consumers can download on their smartphones.  These apps provide information to the consumer through a simple scan of the product. The question again is “who” is providing the information on the app? Consumers are relying more on “word of mouth” and independent verification, before examining product health claims.

Europe may be ahead of the game with the Food Information Transparency Initiative that is endorsed by the European Commission with EU parliamentary backing.   The project is headed by an independent consulting firm that has brought together EU regulators, retailers, food manufacturers and industry representatives.  The first meeting was held in March with an open forum from all sectors on information that the European consumer would like to see.

The information is meant to be objective with neutral information, educating the consumer on their purchases.  Fields of information that might appear on a smartphone will range from organic to whether the product was produced through child labor.  This will contrast with the American model, in that the ultimate fields of information will be arrived at through group consensus.  Nevertheless, should Europe accomplish this feat, before the U.S implements any food labeling standards, it could well serve as a model for their U.S. counterpart.

What does all this have to do with the produce world? Everything.

Produce items have jumped on the bandwagon with package goods, touting the same claims.  Some have been independently corroborated, while others are still questionable. It might be a good time for suppliers to re-examine their "Best Practices" with health claims and begin sharing it with consumers. Without a doubt, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables does enhance your immune system which in turn reduces the rate of diabetes and cancer.  Perhaps, we need to show the consumer a nutritional label with the breakdown of nutrients, similar to package goods; after all, a banana does not just simply contain potassium and magnesium.

Getting consumers involved

You need to excite consumers, through a third party, with all the other legitimate nutrients your produce has to offer. All the way around, produce is the better value for the money and offers more taste, variety and nutrients.  Check out the new “My Best Idea" video series on NBC Universal's ivillage.

Each episode includes real tips from ivillage viewers via video on everyday challenges. One viewer offered a solution to prevent a soggy lunch salad - take it to work in a glass jar!  Have any produce companies caught wind of this?  Another great integrative marketing tool – get your customers involved and excited!

With only 26% of U.S adults consuming vegetables three or more times a day, the vegetable category was elevated to the likes of Monet and Picasso, when crates of heirloom vegetables with names like Lady Godiva squash were auctioned for US$1,000 each at  Sotheby’s in Manhattan to bring attention to the value of this commodity, in September 2010.

Kudos to the baby-carrot industry repositioning its product as “junk food” placing carrot machines in some high schools.  Despite being a mature industry, there is still plenty of room for growth in all produce commodities because the bad news is that an NPD Group report found that only 23% of meals contain a vegetable.  Worse yet, the number of dinners at home that included a salad were 17%; in 1994 it was 22%.  Now, more than ever, is the time to be as creative as ever and connect with your consumer.  What about those labels?


Subscribe to our newsletter