Tuesday, August 16, 2005

In the Food Industry we Trust

Food & Drink Europe today ran the commentary, In food makers we trust?

Don't be surprised if you've never heard of Food & Drink Europe - it's an industry-focused website designed to communicate breaking news to industry food marketers and retailers. That doesn't mean that there isn't good information for consumers within it however. In fact, such sites are often rich with information about and insight into the food industry.

The commentary provides some valuable talking points that consumers should be aware of. As the article points out at the start, among the hollers about obesity and the concerns over nutrition, food companies now need to work hard to ensure they clinch public trust, as a matter of insurance... This means being seen as a force for good.

Three main areas are focused on:
  1. Be honest about health
  2. Take safety seriously
  3. Go for the "good" in ingredients

While the article is geared toward an industry reader, the points made in each section can help consumers make good decisions when buying food.

All the Facts

When you're evaluating a food product for purchase, ask yourself, is this manufacturer being honest? As pointed out in the article, [t]he test is simple: would consumers rate this product as healthy if they were given all the facts?

A quick look at ingredients and the nutrition facts label can help a consumer determine if a product touted as "healthy" really is. For example, a cereal touted as a good source of "whole grain" may not be a good choice once you look at added sweeteners or sodium or the nutrition facts panel reveals very little fiber per serving.

As the clothing store Syms advertisements used to say "an educated consumer is our best customer" - food manufacturers need to promote their products with full disclosure - the good and the bad - and not rely on highlighting the good while hoping no one notices the bad.

A pretty straight forward example of this is the breakfast cereal bars Kelloggs All-Bran Brown Sugar Cinnamon Bars. They are marketed as "heart healthy" and even carry a "heart check" logo from the AHA. They're promoted as having 20% of your daily fiber, zero grams of trans-fat, and low-fat.

The ingredients tell another story:

Wheat bran and psyllium high fiber cereals (wheat bran, sugar, psyllium seed husk, oat fiber, high fructose corn syrup, malt flavoring, calcium phosphate, salt, baking soda, caramel color, sodium ascorbate and ascorbic acid [vitamin C], niacinamide, reduced iron, zinc oxide, pyridoxine hydrochloride [vitamin B6], riboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid, thiamin hydrochloride [vitamin B1], vitamin A palmitate, vitamin B12, vitamin D, BHT [preservative], annatto color), crisp rice (rice, sugar, salt, high fructose corn syrup, malt flavor, thiamin hydrochloride [vitamin B1], niacinamide, calcium pantothenate, pyridoxine hydrochloride [vitamin B6], folic acid), granola (rolled oats, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil), corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fructose, brown sugar, sunflower oil, inulin from chicory root, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, corn syrup solids, glycerin, dextrose, cinnamon, salt, natural flavor, soy lecithin, acetylated monoglycerides, polysorbate 60, defatted soy flour, almond flour, nonfat dry milk, niacinamide, reduced iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2), BHT (preservative).

While the product may indeed be within the labeling guidelines for trans-fats and not have more than 0.5g per serving, this product does contain partially hydrogenated oils - a source of trans-fatty acids! Research has shown that trans-fats are bad for heart health!

Safety First

In light of the above ingredients, the next caution to industry is valuable - that is, keeping in mind safety of the food produced. Not just in terms of potential recall due to an ingredient problem that may cause spoilage or cross contamination of food, but also to be very aware of the science and health concerns of consumers when it comes to ingredients used.

But a far more damaging prospect would be the first “asbestos” of the food industry – a food widely used today, which in future is confirmed as a killer. Whether its aspartame, soya, GM foods or high fructose corn syrup, in today’s information-driven world, pressure groups quickly move to raise public awareness of missing, or conflicting, scientific evidence. Manufacturers need to be at the forefront in monitoring such risks. They must take a proactive role in credibly removing doubts, or in replacing foods where the doubts cannot be laid to rest.

Use Quality Ingredients

I totally understand that a company needs to maintain a healthy bottomline. What I don't understand is when they use poor quality ingredients or ingredients that are suspect based on science and pretend that consumers don't care. As the article points out, [a] study by British analysts IGD recently found that high quality ingredients are the single most important factor in making a product premium. Shoppers, while still price conscious, are willing to pay the extra for something special.

I know for myself, I read labels and often put an item back on the shelf after reading the ingredients. There are some ingredients, no matter how minor in the product, I will not buy - ingredients like partially hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup. Other, better ingredients are readily available to manufacturers and I simply will not purchase products using what I see as inferior ingredients.

As consumers our greatest power is in our pocketbook. If we stop purchasing products made with poor quality ingredients, manufacturers will have to pay attention if their profitability is being affected.

While I may be just one person and my single effort will have little effect on a company, when large numbers of consumers start paying attention and putting poor quality products back on the shelf - well that's hard to ignore!

Not only does refusing to purchase a product start to make companies pay attention, it also rewards those who are doing the right thing for consumers! Not only have I always found something I'm looking for, with ingredients I feel are acceptable - my purchase of those quality products enables the company making that product to continue their business and build their profitability!

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