Is Your Food Product Healthy in Consumers’ Eyes?

It’s no secret Americans are paying more attention to the food they eat – and talking more about it, too. We see huge volumes of conversation, particularly online, around food. For example, according to one recent article, there were 168,375,343 posts on Instagram using the hashtag #food and another 76,239,441 posts for #foodporn.

The increasingly fragmented media ecosystem is shaping the contours of this dialogue. Niche blogs such as SkinnyTaste and Nerd Fitness have quickly become go-to sources of food information, especially for Millennials. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2016 Food and Health Survey tells us one-third of the Millennial generation relies on trusted health, food and nutrition bloggers for information.

Consumers are responding to food news from both traditional and new media outlets by changing their behaviors. According to IFIC:

“The media were a top source that caused a less healthful view of enriched refined grains, saturated fat, added sugars, and low-calorie sweeteners. Whole grains, protein from plant sources, and natural sugars were among the dietary components that gained a more healthful opinion from consumers based on media headlines.”

The IFIC study found that 31 percent of Americans changed their minds about at least one dietary component, such as grains, sugars or protein, for better or worse. In most cases, media headlines and articles were at or near the top of the sources that altered consumers’ opinions, drove changes to their food purchasing decisions, or led them to engage with friends, family or coworkers in conversations about food and nutrition. When given a list of attributes that describe a “healthy eating style,” 51 percent of consumers chose “the right mix of different foods,” followed by “limited or no artificial ingredients or preservatives” (41 percent).

IFIC Food Decisions

Brands can capitalize on these perceptions in their marketing efforts. While consumers care about the perceived health of their food, their perception of healthy food is so broad that almost any brand or product can find a relevant attribute to use in its positioning. Food brands can exercise several options to reach consumers using the latest health trends.

Let’s look at how health messages might sound for a product based on three such options. Low-calorie sweeteners have had it tough lately; after enjoying decades of popularity, real sugar has come back in full force. Consumers are moving away from low-calorie sweeteners as studies have found the body metabolizes these products in the same way it does real sugar.

  • Refute existing health claims. With this option, food brands fight back against disinformation, which oftentimes means going up against trusted consumer sources (and note there’s a distinction here between trusted and credible). A low-calorie sweetener brand could hire its own third-party health experts to talk about the evils of sugar and its path to diabetes and other chronic diseases. However, there are also many health professionals who would argue that real sugar in small doses is better for the body, so this is a risky option for this product.
  • Bolster their own claims. A brand can acknowledge and capitalize on its own strengths. Low-calorie sweeteners could acknowledge the existence and even importance of real sugar, while marketing the benefit of a low-calorie sweetener as a way to manage diabetes and other chronic conditions that afflict millions of Americans.
  • Focus on non-traditional attributes. Sometimes brands simply have to recognize that traditional health messages won’t work for them and instead focus on other factors that consumers perceive as wholesome, such as freshness and authenticity. Many QSR brands have seen success with this option by touting fresh-cut produce and minimally processed meats. However, this option wouldn’t work as well with a heavily processed and largely artificial product such as low-calorie sweeteners.

If I represented a low-calorie sweetener brand, I would go with the bolstering option and own the product’s opportunity to help the 29 million Americans affected by diabetes better manage their condition. The campaign spokesperson could be a relevant health blogger (since we know they are a trusted source) and would include a big media relations push to change the narrative around this product. The important takeaway for brands is to remember that “healthy” is a complex concept that can pose challenges to marketers, but also creates opportunities for new kinds of storytelling.