Con­sumers em­pha­siz­ing in­gre­di­ents

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Deena Shanker

For years, health ad­vo­cates have urged the pub­lic to read the in­gre­di­ents and ig­nore the mar­ket­ing. For years, con­sumers have ig­nored the health ad­vo­cates. But it looks as if they’re fi­nally lis­ten­ing. Food pur­chases are less driven these days by what’s writ­ten on the front of the box than what’s listed as in­gre­di­ents, said An­drew Mandzy, di­rec­tor of strate­gic in­sights at Nielsen. Some con­sumers aren’t even read­ing so much as they are count­ing: About 61 per­cent said that the shorter the in­gre­di­ents’ list, the health­ier the prod­uct. Many are look­ing be­yond the boxes them­selves. In 2014, 48 per­cent of con­sumers went on­line for health in­for­ma­tion. In 2016, 68 per­cent did. Use of tech­nol­ogy such as calo­ri­etrack­ing apps is also up, Mandzy said.

“There’s a shift in how peo­ple are think­ing about ‘bet­ter for you,’ ” he said. “Peo­ple are look­ing for back-to-ba­sics, sim­pler in­gre­di­ents.”

Health pro­fes­sion­als are happy to see the shift. “The over­all trend of a moree­d­u­cated con­sumer is ex­cel­lent,” said

Sharon Al­li­son-Ottey, doc­tor, health ed­u­ca­tor, and author of “Is That Fried Chicken Worth It?” “Just be­ing aware of what you’re eat­ing leads you to eat­ing less.”

Front-of-pack­age claims such as “low-fat” and “ex­cel­lent source of vi­ta­min C” are start­ing to lose their mag­i­cal pow­ers, Nielsen data show. Sales of items marked for their lower fat con­tent are down 1.2 per­cent in dol­lar value over the past five years. For “fat­free,” sales are down 2.7 per­cent. Items marked for their “vi­ta­mins and min­er­als” have seen a 0.8 per­cent de­cline in that pe­riod.

One claim, at least, seems to still work: “nat­u­ral,” an es­sen­tially un­reg­u­lated and there­fore mean­ing­less term. So-called nat­u­ral foods have in­cluded chicken nuggets, Chee­tos and Ga­torade. Sales for prod­ucts bear­ing the la­bel are up 4.2 per­cent.

But Nielsen also cre­ated a separate cat­e­gory with its own, nar­rower cri­te­ria. For that cat­e­gory, the mar­ket re- searchers took a closer look at in­gre­di­ents, store place­ment (for ex­am­ple, is it in the “Nat­u­ral” aisle?) and the rest of the brand. Any­thing USDA-cer­ti­fied or­ganic, for ex­am­ple, was in, and any­thing with ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms or ar­ti­fi­cial or syn­thetic in­gre­di­ents was out. The growth in that nar­rower cat­e­gory was nearly triple the growth in the broader one, at 11.2 per­cent.

As con­sumers pay closer at­ten­tion to in­gre­di­ents, they may be get­ting a lit­tle too zeal­ous, avoid­ing some that are largely harm­less. Sales of prod­ucts blar­ing that they are gluten-free are up 11.8 per­cent over the past five years, and soy-free sales are up 29.8 per­cent. But health pro­fes­sion­als don’t rec­om­mend that av­er­age Amer­i­cans make a point of cut­ting out ei­ther of these in­gre­di­ents.

Un­less you are di­ag­nosed with celiac dis­ease or gluten in­tol­er­ance, “‘gluten­free’ has noth­ing to do with the ac­tual health ben­e­fits of the food,” Al­li­son-Ottey said. As for soy, un­less you have breast can­cer, in which case soy’s es­tro­gen con­tent is a con­cern, you don’t need to avoid it, Al­li­son-Ottey said.

Food man­u­fac­tur­ers are giv­ing cus­tomers what they want. “The trend is to­ward prod­ucts that have more ‘free from’ la­bels on them than a NASCAR driver has auto parts en­dorse­ments on his jacket,” a Pack­aged Facts mar­ket re­search re­port from April said. No ar­ti­fi­cial in­gre­di­ents, no trans fats, no high-fruc­tose corn syrup and no GMOs.

Of course, not all of it is hype. Ar­ti­fi­cial trans fats are so un­healthy that the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion is re­quir­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers to re­move par­tially hy­dro­genated oils, the main source of them, from foods by June 2018. High-fruc­tose corn syrup, like all sugar, can con­trib­ute to weight gain, di­a­betes and other chronic dis­eases.

Among the very health­i­est foods are those that have no la­bels at all: fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles. Con­sumers seem to be learn­ing this les­son, too. Growth in sales of these items from the perime­ter of the su­per­mar­ket is out­pac­ing those from the cen­ter of the store, Mandzy said.

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