Patricia Fiore

In 2003, food marketers began introducing portion-controlled snack packages, with labels trumpeting calorie content—at a time when the industry was focused on fighting a Food and Drug Administration proposal for more prominent display of calorie information on labels.

It was a clear response to consumers’ demands for foods that are convenient and healthy and don’t compromise on taste and flavor, combined with a growing awareness that American consumers were, well, overeating. Twenty years ago an average bagel was 3 inches in diameter and 140 calories. Now that bagel is about 6 inches in diameter and approximately 350 calories. Studies show that children and adults will eat as much food as is put in front of them. Supersized, indeed.

Portion control is no longer news. Marketers like Frito-Lay, General Mills, P&G, Kellogg, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Keebler have all seriously entered the arena. Kraft Food’s 100 Calorie Packs brand has taken in well over $115 million in sales since its inception. And Frito-Lay in particular is committed to healthier snacking, with moves to eliminate trans fatty acids from its snack brand portfolio, utilizing healthier vegetable oils for cooking, and providing options for consumers interested in weight management. What began as a "phenomenon" in packaging snack foods is now evident in other market segments like desserts and bakery products.

This retooling of packaging, approach, and supply has been the result of many things: increases in diabetes and obesity, the threat of litigation, pressure from public interest groups, and looming restrictions on advertising to children. Obviously, portion-controlled packaging is a timely and brilliant marketing response. But food marketers have a responsibility to go even further.

As a society, we are still adapting to the tremendous growth in the numbers of working mothers over the past 20 years. Working parents with so-called "latch-key" kids have to choose their battles, and often enough nutrition takes a back seat to other critical safety issues. And marketers are not necessarily having a constructive impact on this specific and obviously hot issue.

True, there are a number of wonderful quick meal-preparation packages that are healthy, helping working parents be sure that at least one meal meets what the American Dietetic Association would consider basic standards. But when it comes to snacks and "fun" foods, responsibility seems to go out the window.

The fact that portion-controlled packaging has taken off is a strong indicator that consumers want and welcome help in eating healthy for healthier living. But they need more. They need brands that are committed to health and nutrition.

In an article, "Health Marketing Messages Not Always on the Mark," in the March 27, 2006, issue of Brandweek, Steve Bodhaine, Group President of the Yankelovich research firm, was quoted as saying: "Consumers need better tools to make intelligent decisions." Speaking of Yankelovich’s recently released study, "Food for Life," he said, "The data show a glaring lack of understanding of the basics of nutrition and why the right messages aren’t getting through. We’ve taught people how to compare labels when shopping for food but not to understand what they’re reading."

Some proof? Among the 2,200 adults surveyed, "72% say that if food doesn’t taste good, they won’t eat it, no matter how healthy it is. 43% support legislation to ban vending machines from schools. 63% said they have a fair to very good grasp of nutritional information on labels. But half didn’t know how many calories they should consume daily and 80% did not know how much fat, carbs, or sodium to consume in a 2,000 calorie diet."

Consumers have already been trained and conditioned to read and compare labels. Here’s the kicker: an online Harris survey last December found that nutrition information is a greater motivator for purchases than brands. Price was the greatest motivator at point of purchase, followed by Nutrition Facts panels and ingredient lists. Brands came in at fourth place, at only 6%.

The opportunity is here now. Consumers want clarity. They’re looking at labels, and they want direction and education. They need you to provide clear direction as to what your brand stands for, how it meets their real and perceived nutritional needs, and where they can find it.

Any brand that educates and provides smart, healthy food choices that are a value for both pocketbook and physical health has a chance to create and own a position of true leadership, based on responsible guidance and direction, and create a strong, authoritative stance in long-term brand loyalty. And that’s ultimately what makes a profitable brand—building value-based, long-term, loyal brand relationships.

Now is the time to create labeling that’s educational, interesting, and simple.

by Patricia Fiore is President & CEO, Fiore Associates, 10 DeHart St., Morristown, N.J. 07960 ([email protected])