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Since I began counting calories for the first time in my 47 years I have become an even more conscious shopper. I find myself spending many more minutes these days in the grocery store comparing the unit prices of competing brands of similar items on the grocery shelf, to see if the "economy" size is really a bargain. Much of the time is also spent reading the nutrition labels to check for fat and fiber and sodium content and, most of all, calories.
But do I really think about how much of what's in that package gives me those calories? For me based on my day in day out job you bet, the general public the latest research says probably not.
A team of university researchers found in three separate studies that consumers can be swayed in their purchasing decisions by food marketers reporting the nutritional content of smaller serving sizes.
For example, some ready-to-eat soups proclaim in large print on the front of the can that they provide less than 100 calories. It's only on the back, in the standard Nutrition Facts label, that you discover their figures are based on two servings per can. Really?
This practice, known as "health framing," can decrease consumers' anticipated guilt over consuming higher calorie foods and increase the likelihood they will purchase that item, according to the research published in the American Marketing Association's Journal of Marketing.
The professors – Gina Mohr of Colorado State University; Donald R. Lichtenstein of the University of Colorado; and Chris Janiszewski of the University of Florida – also found that framing has the greatest influence with consumers who are most concerned about their diets. This was a surprise.
"We assumed that health-conscious individuals would pay close attention to the information provided on the label, but that's not so," Mohr said. "People notice the calories, which is important, but fail to do the math. So a consumer may decide that a product is a sound nutritional choice, even though that product may be less than ideal."
Nutrition labels have been mandatory on almost all packaged food items sold in the United States since 1990, with calories, fat, sugar, sodium, carbohydrates and other elements reported on a "per-serving-size" basis. The labels give consumers more nutrition information at the point of sale so that they should be able to make healthier food choices.
However, the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates nutrition labeling, allows food manufacturers some discretion in deciding how much is in a suggested serving. So, if you want to compare applesauce to applesauce, you have to figure out if the portions on both labels are same, and if not, be ready to do some calculating – or wind up with more calories than you planned for.
"Manufacturers are increasingly using visual cues and package labels to promote various nutritional attributes of their products," Mohr explained. "Consumers tend to focus on the cues and fail to examine all the information carefully."
Mohr and her colleagues suggested that if nutritional information were presented in a standardized way – for example, on a per-ounce or per-gram basis, like the per-unit price information found on most supermarket shelves – comparison shopping would be much simpler for consumers who want to make healthy food choices.
With FDA labeling requirements for restaurant menus coming soon, the issue of portion size should be top of mind for chefs and restaurant operators, too. I know it is for me these days. So many restaurants are asking me questions specifically looking for the right answers and clear direction.
The health-framing study appeared in the January 2012 issue of the American Marketing Association's Journal of Marketing.
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