IFT panel member challenges idea of ​​consumers reading labels

CHICAGO – For decades consumers have relied on nutrition ratings far less than is generally believed, said Robert Lilienfield, executive director of the Sustainable Packaging Research, Information and Networking Group, Broomfield, Colo.

At a panel discussion at IFT First, July 11-13 at McCormick Place in Chicago, Mr. Lilienfeld said that at least 5% of consumers read labels and that consumer packaged food companies should not rely on labels to communicate messages to consumers.

During the session, titled “What Role Do Labels Play in Consumer Education,” panelists spent more time discussing issues such as sustainability than the role labels play in educating consumers. Turning to the issue of labels, Mr. Lilienfeld cited data that he said had been collected for The Procter & Gamble Co., Ltd. , where he began his career.

He said the food industry in the late 20th century was “scared to death that this kind of information might change people’s minds about the foods they buy.”

The data and subsequent consumer behavior show that the concerns were misplaced.

“We did research that showed that 95% of consumers said it was important to have information, only 5% actually used it,” he said. “It has done very little to change how consumers buy products and what they buy.”

Mr. Lilienfeld said the rapid growth in demand during the 1990s for food from quick service restaurants and snacks/processed foods in supermarkets seemed to confirm the data.

“If you rely on the labels on your packaging to communicate with consumers, keep in mind that the odds are that only 5% to 10% of consumers actually read that label,” he said. “You’d better look for other ways to get this message across.”

Other members wondered if too few consumers read labels. The results of other surveys have been published in recent years, showing higher levels of use, but the numbers vary widely.

In 2019, data published jointly by the Foundation for the International Food Information Council and the American Heart Association showed that 59% of consumers said they always read the labels on packaged foods before they first purchase them. A 2016 Ipsos survey showed that two-thirds of respondents said they had read food labels. A late 2010 study from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health concluded that “many people check nutrition facts infrequently, if at all.”

Mr Lilienfeld said the data he cited had been considered proprietary for many years, but that was no longer possible.

Another panel member, Stacey Cox, director of insights, core capabilities and accelerators in North America at Kraft Heinz, said it’s important to consider the different ways consumers approach trips to the supermarket.

“A lot of times, we assume everyone is the same,” she said. “If you don’t understand that a consumer is heading to the grocery store aisle and spending 10 seconds in that aisle, they are thinking about Friday night dinner after a long week. They want some good pizza. You really need to know who that person is, and what their situation is. Some are affected. People. Some are not. They make decisions in milliseconds on very small packets.”

She said it is a challenge for food companies to provide the basic information needed to help consumers make decisions.

“Sometimes, their head is somewhere else,” she said.

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