Consumers pay attention to where ingredients come from
Foodfacts.com has learned from AdWeek that concern about food safety used to be a simple phenomenon, as consumers merely wondered whether something they might eat was tainted and would promptly make them sick. Now, as is clear from a Deloitte survey released last week, mainstream consumers have a more refined understanding that includes attention to how “processed” a food product is and where its ingredients originate.
Sixty-five percent of Deloitte’s respondents said they’re more concerned than they were five years ago about the food they eat. Thirty-four percent rated themselves as highly concerned about the quality and safety of foods they eat at home. Even more, 44 percent, felt that way about foods they eat elsewhere. When asked to identify their primary concerns about foods they buy, 49 percent cited “healthiness” and 36 percent “safety.” Also high on the list were “possible use of chemical ingredients that are detrimental to long-term health” (29 percent) and “use of high-fructose corn syrup” (27 percent).
In an indication of the degree to which relatively sophisticated concerns about food have gone mainstream, the poll (conducted in March) found 31 percent of respondents including “overprocessed food” among their top concerns about the foods they eat. Do marketers realize that “overprocessed” has become a turnoff for so many consumers? “I think they’re clearly aware of it, and I think they’re selectively dealing with it,” says Pat Conroy, vice chairman and U.S. consumer-products practice leader at Deloitte.
What the consumer believes
It’s a tricky area, with scientific evidence mixed on whether certain things are or are not unhealthy. “But what matters at the end of the day is what the consumer believes,” adds Conroy, characterizing the situation as one of those in which “perception is reality.” While companies are moving to make some of their products more “natural” and to communicate this to consumers, “they’re doing so in a somewhat muted way, since they’re not changing all their products across the board.” It’s also a “balancing act,” he says, that involves such disparate considerations as flavor and profitability.
Meanwhile, 53 percent of Deloitte’s respondents said they “frequently or always read the list of ingredients on an unfamiliar packaged/bottled food item”; 54 percent frequently/always check the “Nutritional Facts” box when considering such products. Atop the roster of items they’re examining are calories (71 percent), total fat (63 percent), sugars (50 percent) and sodium (45 percent).
The information on the label doesn’t always make for easy reading, though. One of the striking findings of the survey is that 55 percent of respondents said they “understand half or less of the ingredients.” The best that can be said about the incomprehensibility of ingredient lists is that consumers don’t feel the brands are actually trying to hoodwink them. “My sense is that they don’t think anything devious is going on,” says Conroy. “But it does make them uneasy.” After all, this isn’t like buying some gadget whose innards can’t endanger your health. With food, notes Conroy, people now ask themselves, “‘Do I take this on trust?’ If you’re buying food that goes into a loved one’s body, there can be damage there. Just trusting the ad campaign that says ‘new and improved’ doesn’t carry the day anymore.”
Where does it come from?
Meanwhile, safety issues involving some products from China have turned concern about “country of origin” of food ingredients into a mass phenomenon. The survey found 51 percent of respondents regarding country-of-origin labeling for fresh meat, fish, fruit and vegetables as “extremely” or “very” important to them, along with another 35 percent saying it’s “somewhat” important. Moreover, 45 percent said they’d “like to find out country-of-origin on a Web site for all ingredients in a packaged/bottled food product.”
Would so many people really go online for this sort of information? Conroy thinks so. He notes that ever-growing numbers of consumers are already going to food brands’ Web sites for coupons and recipes, “so it’s not a stretch to think they’d look for other information,” including country-of-origin data for product ingredients. He also notes Deloitte research among marketers that finds them believing consumers are increasingly going online “to cross-examine the brand.”
While food science may resolve some of consumers’ worries, it creates other concerns. More than one-third of respondents said they’re “extremely concerned” (13 percent) or “very concerned” (21 percent) about eating genetically modified foods. Among women, nearly four in 10 were concerned about eating such foods (16 percent “extremely,” 23 percent “very”).
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