One year they are told to not eat fat, then not to eat carbs, and later they are told that maybe these aren't smart choices and that in fact eating rich and all-natural foods like they do in the Mediterranean is the best way to go. All the while, the products in grocery aisles are anything but 'all natural', despite the fact manufacturers are addressing consumer demand for healthful food by injecting nutrients into packaged goods. Fair enough. At least consumers will be getting more nutritional value out of their packaged functional foods - so if you are not fortunate enough to have a farm in Provence with fresh olive oil at your disposal, functional items may be your next best option. So this leaves consumers with the choice of going down the packaged foods route or the fresh vegetable aisle route for their nutrition. These are personal lifestyle decisions and a savvy consumer will know how to find a balance between convenience and optimal nutrition. But just how savvy is the average consumer? I'm not wanting to underestimate anyone here - there are some very clued in customers out there. But there are strong indications that whatever it is we have been doing over the past 20 years it has not been working. In the US, for example, an estimated 66 percent of adults are either overweight or obese, based on results from the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. And the rate of obesity more than doubled from the previous survey - increasing from 15.0 percent (1976-1980) to 32.9 percent. Now consumer savvy is being put further to the test with the onset of functional foods crossing the line into snack foods or candy territory. Take chocolate for example. The once forbidden candy item is edging into 'healthy' aisles thanks to cocoa polyphenols and their heart health benefits. But can food manufacturers really assume consumers will know enough to make the distinction between an occasional treat with functional properties, and suddenly thinking a chocolate bar is health food? This is not a question of IQ, but rather of time, priorities and public awareness. Research has shown that consumers are confused about even the basics, like nutrition fact labels. In the US, these are designed to help consumers make wiser decisions at the supermarket, but surveys have shown that the public is still not digesting the message. A study published in the November 2006 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine questioned 200 patients from a wide socioeconomic range and found that, among other things, only 37 percent of patients could calculate the number of carbohydrates consumed from a 20 oz bottle of soda containing 2.5 servings, while only 60 percent could calculate carbohydrates consumed if they ate half a bagel. Meanwhile, the participants indicated overwhelmingly that they found nutrition labels easy to read. Industry has obviously already identified the need to spell things out simply for consumers, which has resulted in a proliferation of nutrient symbols and marks in the US designed to flag up products that meet specific nutritional guidelines. But again the problem here is a lack of consistency, which ultimately risks confusing consumers more than helping them. There is a similar situation in Europe, where the food industry has been hotly debating different approaches to food labelling. Be it the basic but accessible 'traffic light' scheme, the CIAA's guidelaine daily amount (GDA) scheme, or a combination of the two, the overarching aim is to give the consumer the information they need to make an informed purchasing decision. So efforts are underway. But if we are going to be throwing more and more innovative products their way, time is of the essence in finding ways to associate these foods with a nutritional knowledge base consumers can easily decipher and fit into a whole lifestyle plan. This way, food manufacturers can be instrumental in informing people that if they eat that chocolate-based healthy bar as a snack, maybe they should forgo the soy smoothie for breakfast, despite the fact it is also healthy, unless they go for a brisk walk after work. Consumers are faced with the luxury of perhaps too many choices, and the food industry is collectively in a position to draw a nutritional roadmap for them to make the healthiest and most balanced use of their increasingly better-flavored and healthier products.
Clarisse Douaud reports for NutraIngredients-USA.com and has lived and worked in Canada, Ireland, Argentina and France. If you would like to comment on the piece, send an email to: clarisse.douaud'at'decisionnews.com .