Linda Eatherton

Nutrition and health are assuming increasing importance to food shoppers around the globe. That’s a message that Ketchum’s Global Food & Nutrition Practice received loud and clear from participants in our ongoing global research project, Food 2020: Consumer as CEO. In this research initiative, findings from which were presented at the IFT Wellness 12 conference this spring, middle-income shoppers in China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Argentina were surveyed in 2008 and again in 2011 to learn what they expect of the food industry and what decisions they would make if they were the CEO of a multinational food company.

The premise of Ketchum’s research was that we have moved from a consumer-centric society to a consumer-driven society where technology has armed the world to unite, influence, inform, collaborate, and hold court with split-second speed. The research was meant to be directional to validate theories that consumers believe they deserve more power and influence than they currently have and will want even more in the decade ahead. One over-arching finding was that while most global research shows dramatic cultural and regional variations, we are globally very aligned on our expectations of the food industry.

From 2008 to 2011, the economic balance changed dramatically, changing the findings in the second wave of the study. Confidence in government and business declined. Countries thought to be developing or emerging are realizing amazing growth. The rising economy in China and Argentina shows that consumers are feeling more powerful and demanding of the foods they buy. Consumers in Argentina continue to view food as the foundation for family happiness, while in China, food remains a pathway to health.

While taste, quality, and price continue to be key drivers of food choices, what stood out was that taste has dropped to the bottom of that list. When probed, consumers explained that they expect taste to be a fundamental promise of every product—not a variable for making food choices. And what is emerging is that quality is actually “code” for good-for-you products.

Thus, it seems clear to us that it is only a matter of time before nutrition and/or health reach the top box of important considerations in the shopper’s mind. Globally, 73% of consumers want more foods that can be active agents in reducing health risks.

Consumers are tired of expensive and broken down health-care systems, tired of popping pills. They are concerned that they are aging and quality of life is not a given as they grow older. They want food to be their ally in health and well-being.

The more we know, the more skeptical we have become. We expect to recognize all ingredients on the food label. We want to know the company, its policies, production, processing, and sourcing practices.

Information discovered out of context tends to concern, frighten, and in some cases set off a firestorm that demonizes and indicts the industry unnecessarily. To assure confidence in the food supply will require more transparency and more proactive knowledge sharing in the years ahead. In 2008 consumers put most if not all the responsibility for our world’s health and wellness on the shoulders of the food companies and government. Today there is a rising acceptance and awareness of personal responsibility and accountability relative to food choices. Perhaps we are seeing a backlash to onerous legislation and regulatory actions. But it is clear that consumers continue to believe the food industry has a role in helping them reach health and wellness goals and urge that industry work to reduce chemicals and additives in food.

The research summary presented at Wellness 12 closed with some predictions from Ketchum’s Food & Nutrition Practice, two of which have particular implications for the scientific community.

We predict that by the year 2020, a global food and agriculture trust bank will be formed. The food and agriculture research pipeline is nearly empty. The funds that exist are generated by self-interested groups with agendas. Policies and regulations are being constructed on misinformation, disinformation, and skewed research taken out of context and/or framed by secondary data. A centralized global fund generated by industry could stimulate a new body of unbiased science.

Secondly, we predict that consumers will join food R&D departments virtually. As technology empowers more and more consumers to take action and control, expect them to demand to have a say in what products are developed in the future and how they are designed from the very beginning.


Linda Eatherton, Contributing Editor
Partner and Director of Ketchum’s Global Food & Nutrition Practice, Ketchum, Chicago, Ill.
[email protected]