October 8, 2012 by afrazzini
If food manufacturers were required to provide front-of-package nutritional ratings such as those recommended by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), their biggest challenge would be adjusting to the outcome that public health professionals seek: a shift in consumer demand toward less-processed products.
In the blog Food Politics, Marion Nestle has shared lists of products that the IOM’s proposed interpretive Front-of-Package Labeling scheme would promote (plain nonfat yogurt, plain instant oatmeal) and those it would not promote (sweetened yogurt, breakfast bar) (5). A comparison between the two lists reveals that the proposed scheme would generally promote products that have fewer ingredients.
The IOM’s recommendations mimic what many nutritionists have been saying for decades: eat more whole foods (2). Whole (or unprocessed) foods tend to be more nutritious than processed foods because processing usually involves the addition of unhealthy ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and soy oil. Adding these inexpensive ingredients does not raise production costs very much for the manufacturer (1), but it adds value to the product in terms of total calories and/or taste. Consumers perceive this added value and are willing to pay the same amount or more for a product with lower production costs.
If successful, a labeling scheme that causes consumers to buy fewer highly-processed/high-profit-margin products could ultimately result in lower overall profit for food manufacturers – that is, if the manufacturers didn’t find other ways to add value to products.
But in recent years, many companies have successfully pioneered innovative value-adding strategies: pre-washed and bagged salad, compartmentalized containers of vegetables & dip that transport easily, yogurt that can be squeezed from a tube directly into the mouth. These types of items all appeal to a customer’s desire for convenience, an important consideration for even the most limited-budget consumers (4).
A public health campaign that caused a shift in consumer demand toward less-processed products would simply nudge companies further in the direction of these types of innovations. In the tradition of the capitalist economy, companies with the best ideas and methods for meeting the new customer demands will thrive and grow. It is likely that some companies will fail to adjust, and will lose market share due to the changes in customer demand – large, risk-averse food manufacturers may resist the labeling schemes for this very reason (3). But as a whole, the market will adapt – and this time, it will be for the benefit of the customer’s health.
1) Barry R. HFCS: A Sweetener Revolution. National Food Review 1982:23:10-13.
2) Brand J, Nicholson P, Thorburn A, Truswell A. Food processing and the glycemic index. Am J Clin Nutr 1985:42:1192-1196.
3) Cardello, Hank. Stuffed, Harper Collins, 2009.
4) Glanz K, Basil M, Maibach E, Goldberg J, Snyder D. Why Americans Eat What They Do: Taste, Nutrition, Cost, Convenience, and Weight Control Concerns as Influences on Food Consumption. JADA 1998:98:1118-1126.
5) Nestle M. “IOM releases tough report on front-of-package labeling.” October 20 2011. Available at http://www.foodpolitics.com/2011/10/iom-releases-tough-report-on-front-of-package-labeling/.