Are Front of Pack Labeling Schemes Future Ready?

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Rates of overweight and obesity have tripled in the past 25 years and with diet related diseases on the rise, governments have been compelled to act. Amongst a suite of strategies on trial, one approach has been the adoption of front of pack labeling schemes like the Health Star Rating in Australia, Nutri-Score in France and Traffic Lights in the UK, as a means of encouraging people to buy 'healthier' foods.

Much has been written, researched and debated about the value of these schemes and when speaking with my clients in the food sector, there is often uncertainty about the value of giving over limited on pack real estate to a symbol that is shrouded in controversy.

Outside of these short term considerations however, there's also the key question about how well these schemes are set up for the future - in particular, how well positioned they are to drive behaviour change and, from a marketing and innovation perspective, to support and elevate brand positioning.

For those thinking long term, here are a few of my thoughts in this area:

Labeling Schemes May Struggle to Keep Pace with Change
Being based on an algorithm or a number and the fact that once adopted these schemes affect many products across the supply chain, it's challenging for them to be updated and to evolve.

At the recent AIFST Feeding the Future Convention held in Sydney, one of our major retailers presented data showing that Australians consider healthy food as being fresh, natural and minimally processed. Locally, our Health Star Rating (HSR) Scheme doesn't consider any of these factors when assessing how healthy a food is. The problem here is that this creates a trust gap between consumer perceptions of healthy food, and the fact that highly processed foods can receive a five star rating.

Why is this important? Because, outside of price, trust is the greatest currency a brand holds as a means of influencing food purchasing decisions.

If consumers do not believe that the way a brand communicates its health credentials is trustworthy, this not only fails to meet the public health objective of the system, it hurts the reputation of the brand.

A reductionist way of assessing food is out of touch with emerging science.
Presenting at the International Forum on Food and Nutrition in New York last September, leading nutrition researcher Dr Dariush Mozaffarian from Tufts University highlighted that the reductionist way policy makers are defining foods as healthy has an historical root in the way governments addressed the prevention of scurvy and pellagra in the 1920's-1940's. However this approach, which involves targeting a nutrient or handful of nutrients to fix a problem is not working well for the reduction of chronic disease.

Dr Mozzafarian went as far to suggest that this method, applied most commonly in the form of front of pack interpretative nutrition labels, is flawed and potentially misleading. While reducing added sugar, added salt and added trans fat makes sense, total fat, saturated fat and even kilojoules are misleading metrics to focus on.

Keeping up with nutrition science is critical and so is the ability to challenge the status quo.

Focusing on behaviour change may be better
Given that people eat food, not numbers, it could be that directing our attention to behaviour change strategies may be a better and more effective way forward. In fact, we are now starting to see movement in this direction.

Canada’s recently released and revised dietary guidelines include recommendations around enhancing food skills, the importance of promoting cooking and food preparation, celebrating cultural food practises and eating with others and McCain Foods recently released advertising campaign puts the family meal at the centre of social gatherings, supporting cooking at home and eating together.

Building and maintaining meaningful connections with consumers that not only support brand reputation, but guide consumers toward making better choices for their own health, the health of their families, and the health of the planet requires leading food businesses to challenge the status quo, to think more critically than they may have in the past and to develop their own thought leadership in this important and growing area for the future.

If you would like to discuss these thoughts further, please get in touch.

This article is a excerpt from an article I wrote for Inside FMCG on the Health Star Rating Scheme which appeared online this week. For the full article go here.