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Dispatches from IFT 2014

RD: There’s a health continuum for every food; what pillars do you want to stand on?

By Maggie Hennessy , 02-Jul-2014
Last updated on 03-Jul-2014 at 17:24 GMT

What is the future of ‘naturality’ on product labels? Are sin taxes and warning just policy tools disguised as a consumer advocacy? And should health and wellness be part of every brand’s messaging? 

During last week’s IFT show in New Orleans, FoodNavigator-USA chatted with registered dietitian Rachel Cheatham, who is also the founder and CEO of nutrition strategy consultant FoodScape Group, to discuss manufacturers’ major concerns leading up to the Nutrition Facts panel and Dietary Guidelines updates, along with what a “message hierarchy” is and why food marketers should care.

How to deal with 'bad' food

The biggest concern from big, medium and small clients alike surrounds the rather sticky concept of naturality, Dr. Cheatham said. “Is it all natural? Can I say 100% natural? What is the definition of natural? And then that quickly turns into a debate and often brings up questions around sweeteners, because we know that added sugars may very well end up on our food label and we get into debates over which sweeteners are natural and not natural.”

But such topics have unsurprisingly warranted the scrutiny of public health officials, policymakers and the food and beverage industry, as they grapple with rising adult and childhood obesity rates in the United States. Some of the more aggressive policy efforts introduced at the state and municipal level—such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s failed cap on large sugary beverages and the soda warning label moving through the California legislature—are undoubtedly drawing attention to the obesity problem, though perhaps at the expense of consumer choice and personal responsibility.

“With these rigorous policy tools, I get a little concerned the message we’re sending is really no longer about the enjoyment of food, the health of food, being able to make choices about our food and being responsible for foods and beverages we’re choosing,” she said. “I do want to see us make progress, but I look at all that’s happening and I’m just worried it’s too much of a matrix that may be about a policy tool that may push industry quite honestly to make reformulations and improvements under the auspices that this label is for the consumer. I kind of feel like the consumer is getting a little lost in that shuffle.”

That being said, manufacturers need to establish what message they want to get across to the consumer on the limited real estate they have available on pack. That means deciding internally what they want to be known for (snackability versus nutrition) and how much detail they need to get into as a result—or, as Dr. Cheatham puts it, establishing a message hierarchy.

“There’s a continuum of any food, any beverage," Dr. Cheatham said. "It sounds very nutritionist of me to say, but all can come in a healthy diet. But when you think about, how are you messaging your product and your brand, I really advise leaders of that brand to come together in advance What are the pillars you want to stand on? How much do you want to have a health and wellness value proposition? Or not? It my not be your space. Maybe you’re about taste or snackability or portability.”

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