What's on – and not on – the label
by Jeff Gelski
No” and “free” have become popular marketing words in the food industry. What is not on the ingredient list may be just as important as what is on it, judging by recent reports and surveys. The International Food Information Council Foundation 2014 Food & Health Survey released this month is no exception.
When people in the survey were asked what they were trying to limit or avoid, 51% said added sugars, the top item. Trans fats (49%), high-fructose corn syrup (48%) and saturated fats (47%) followed.
Marketing products with no trans fat became more popular in 2006 when the Food and Drug Administration mandated listing of trans fat on the Nutrition Facts Panel. Might a similar scenario arise for claims of no added sugars? The F.D.A. in the March 3 Federal Register of this year proposed listing added sugars on the Nutrition Facts Panel.
Some consumers also are looking for products void of gluten, non-bioengineered ingredients and chemical preservatives. Packaged Facts released a report on Feb. 7 called “Food formulation trends: Ingredients consumers avoid.”
“Food avoidance has become a way of life for tens of millions of American consumers of all ages,” the report said. “For consumers with allergies and intolerances, avoiding certain food and ingredients is a matter of life and death, but for other consumers avoiding various foods is a matter of choice based on a desire to lose weight or to have an overall healthier life.”
Some people, such as those choosing gluten-free products even though they do not have celiac disease, still believe avoiding certain ingredients is healthier, according to the report.
“Many in this group of consumers have no specific illness but are reacting to a barrage of messages received through social media, on-line and traditional media sources suggesting that some ingredients are a health threat to the general populace, not just the limited number of people who have been diagnosed with an allergy, intolerance or sensitivity,” the report said.
Some food manufacturers are accommodating consumers and eliminating such ingredients as gluten and bioengineered ingredients, the report said.
A “Free-From Food Expo 2014” June 3-4 in Brussels, Belgium, will cover not only products free from gluten, but also free from lactose, dairy, yeast, wheat, fat, nuts, soy, salt, bioengineered ingredients, eggs, sugar, additives, preservatives and hydrogenated fats. Speakers will include those from Mintel and Leatherhead Food Research.
Food and ingredient industry groups have questioned the validity of trends in which people avoid certain ingredients.
The Corn Refiners Association, Washington, points to a Mintel survey that used an unaided basis, or did not give respondents a list of ingredients to choose from. Only 3% of shoppers indicated they specifically were avoiding high-fructose corn syrup.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, Washington, spoke up for the safety of bioengineered ingredients, also known as genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.s), when the state of Vermont passed a law that will require labeling of foods containing bioengineered ingredients.
“The F.D.A., World Health Organization, American Medical Association and U.S. National Academy of Science have all found that foods and beverages that contain G.M. ingredients are safe and materially no different than conventionally produced products,” the G.M.A. said in a May 8 statement.
Maeve Webster, a senior director at DataEssential, cast doubt on the gluten-free trend when she spoke at the Research Chefs Association’s annual conference in Portland, Ore., in March.
“I think we are at its pinnacle,” she said. “It’s more work than any consumer who doesn’t need it wants to do.”
Gluten-free did not rank highly in the IFIC survey. When people were asked what they were trying to limit or avoid, 13% mentioned gluten, which ranked 17th.
Mathew Greenwald & Associates, Washington, conducted the web-based IFIC survey in March. It found many Americans view having a healthful diet as equally important as getting enough exercise (61%), minimizing stress (49%), having a healthy financial situation (46%) and feeling fulfilled with a job (46%).
“Overall, Americans generally believe healthfulness of diet is just as important as other priorities in life,” the report said. “While the majority say that spending time with loved ones is more important than having a healthful diet, 40% feel that eating a healthful diet is more important than having an active social life.”
Ingredients in demand
Consumers continue to seek fiber, whole grains and protein in products, but percentages dropped for all three items in the 2014 IFIC survey. When asked what they try to get a certain amount of or as much as possible, 53% mentioned fiber, which was down from 62% last year, 53% mentioned whole grains, which also was down from 62%, and 50% mentioned protein, which was down from 57%.
When asked to identify the benefits of whole grains, 80% said maintenance of a healthy digestive system, 78% said promoting heart health, 70% said weight management, 67% said satiety and 60% said the relationship between whole grains and the promotion of healthy blood sugars.
Among those in the IFIC survey trying to consume more protein, more than four out of five said they get protein from poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds, and fish. More than 70% said beans and legumes, milk and dairy, and beef are protein sources that they eat.
An opportunity to add protein to snacks may exist, according to a session at the Institute of Food Technologists’ IFT Wellness 14 held in March in Chicago. Elizabeth A. Sloan, Ph.D., president and contributing editor of Sloan Trends, Inc., and Catherine Adams Hutt, Ph.D., chief regulatory and science officer for Sloan Trends, led the session.
They mentioned data from Information Resources, Inc. showing the number of high protein claims on snack items grew 28% in 2011 and 16.7% in 2012. Dr. Sloan and Dr. Adams Hutt also mentioned Mintel data showing 36% of households have people who consume snack or protein bars such as Special K Protein, 35% of households have people who consume fiber bars such as Fiber One and Fiber Plus, and 22% of households have people who consume nutrition bars such as Balance and Luna.
Two trends, gluten-free and protein, may appear to contradict each other. Brett Carver, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at Oklahoma State University, spoke on the gluten-free trend during his presentation March 3 at the American Society of Baking’s BakingTech in Chicago.
He said wheat farmers are interested in three things: yield, yield and yield.
“I have yet to have a farmer approach me and ask me, ‘What is the gluten content in that wheat variety?’” he said.
Dr. Carver also talked about people wanting to eat more plant-based protein.
“Well, you can’t get closer to vegetable protein than wheat gluten,” he said.