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Full disclosure: I represent a company that offers an attribute-based shelf-edge nutrition information solution to retailers. The average shopper has never heard of our product, and likely never will. We aren't building a consumer brand with it; instead, we provide the underlying data for nutrition programs for the majority of retailers in the United States.
Nutrition labeling provides a big opportunity for retailers to engage shoppers in a meaningful way, and virtually every major food retailer is looking for new ideas to communicate more effectively (and accurately) with their shoppers when it comes to the nutritive value of foods. Based on conversations I had with many of those retailers, their customers are asking them to provide better -- i.e. trustworthy -- information about the products those retailers are selling.
Adding nutrition information at the shelf, where most purchase decisions are made, makes sense. However, unless the scores are understood by the typical shopper, much of the value is lost. One would certainly expect broccoli to score high and cookies to score low, but when peaches score lower than brownies, it’s no wonder a shopper gets confused.
It would appear that so far, both sides in this debate have been more about science than any discussion of how shoppers might use the information presented. In a world where too many parents believe that Nutella is a healthful alternative, it’s clear that there’s a need for transparent and easy-to-understand labeling.
So what should a retailer look for when assessing what makes up a viable and easily understood in-store nutrition program? Three critical components will stand up to shopper scrutiny and provide ongoing value:
- Be transparent: Make the source of the information clear and easy to understand for everyone. Super-secret algorithms that can’t be understood by the average shopper, or programs that require a multipage handout to explain them, don’t make for a good shopping experience.
- Use a credible source for that information, something like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If a recommendation for a product is made, it’s helpful for the buyer to know what authority is making that recommendation. This is important, because ultimately, it’s the retailer’s reputation that is at stake.
- Be agnostic: Don’t allow the facts to be manipulated or twisted, and ensure that all ratings are comparable across products. Manufacturers shouldn’t be allowed to “buy in” to a program.
Many shoppers are in search of foods with specific attributes, for example low sodium, or zero trans fats. A score can’t provide that type of information. Considering the myriad words that actually mean “sugar,” it’s clear that to someone looking to reduce sugar intake, a label of “no added sugar” would be much more helpful than a score.
The point is that shoppers benefit from a nutrition program that informs and educates them about their food choices. A program that uses meaningful attributes helps shoppers find what they need. Attributes such as “Heart Healthy,” “Good Source of Calcium” and “Gluten-free” help guide shoppera based on their needs. These attributes can be derived from the nutrition fact panel and based on FDA guidelines, so that something labeled a “Good Source of Protein” means that it meets or exceeds the FDA’s guidelines for a good source of protein. While no system is perfect, it should at least be designed so that the average shopper can understand it without a lot of explanation.
All of the science that’s been used in the creation of our food supply is nothing less than astonishing; some of it’s been beneficial, some of it less so. However, asking shoppers who just want to make healthier choices to understand more science is unrealistic. What they need is a labeling system that -- while based in science -- is easy to understand, simple to use and readily available at the shelf.
Jeff Weidauer is VP of marketing and strategy for Vestcom International Inc., a Little Rock, Ark.-based provider of integrated shopper marketing solutions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.vestcom.com.