Josh Sosland
It is difficult to blame bakers for their ambivalent attitudes toward nutrition labeling. The industry has cited data indicating a large proportion of the population has no interest in the facts, figures and descriptors that occupy a significant proportion of the valuable real estate the information covers on packaged foods and beverages. Negative feelings have been fueled at times by battles with federal authorities over the specifics mandated for inclusion on the Nutrition Facts Panel.

At the same time, bakers may view nutrition data as a useful myth-buster, helping consumers understand the healthfulness of baked foods. A consumer who believes white bread equates to empty calories is challenged by a Nutrition Facts Panel bearing an impressive list of vitamins and minerals in flour-dense foods. Additionally, Food and Drug Administration data indicate an increase in the percentage of consumers who say they read the nutrition label, at least the first time they purchase a product.

Concerns about the best way to communicate product attributes to consumers extend far beyond baking, of course, and in January 2011, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute jointly launched “Facts Up Front,” a voluntary nutrition labeling system allowing food companies to prominently and selectively highlight a few key facts — calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars content as well as fiber and micronutrient content — on the front of packages.

Three years later, the G.M.A. and the F.M.I. embarked on an even more ambitious initiative aimed at addressing a thorny conundrum. While 85% of consumers believe they have access to the food information they need, this attitude abruptly changes when someone reads a provocative news article or views a social media post about a particular product. Suddenly, this consumer becomes intensely interested in information about a product, perhaps urgently seeking background that does not appear on the product package.

Food manufacturers wisely concluded that the industry should be a source of go-to, in-depth and easy-to-access factual information about its products rather than what might turn up in a Google search. The G.MA. and the F.M.I. convened 325 representatives from 90 different companies to help conceptualize what has become the SmartLabel digital initiative.

Quietly launched in January 2016, the new and still evolving tool gives consumers easy access to as many as 335 different product attributes extending beyond nutrition facts into categories such as sustainability practices, usage instructions and certifications, according to the G.M.A.

While consumers will be able to quickly retrieve the information from a variety of sources, including toll-free telephone numbers, SmartLabel is very much a digital initiative. In a white paper published earlier this year, the G.M.A. noted that 300 million people in the United States have internet access, and smartphone ownership is expected to reach 80 per cent by 2018. Nearly 90 per cent of consumers use search engines while shopping before making purchase decisions.

Brand web sites and have been popular resources for retrieving SmartLabel information to date, but it is Q.R. codes that may become the avenue of choice for SmartLabel in the future. Both Google and Apple have announced plans to release Q.R. code readers in the companies’ operating systems for mobile devices.

Participation in the SmartLabel program had reached 14,000 products from 35 companies as of early September, and the G.M.A. expects product counts to more than double by the end of the year. A major consumer awareness campaign is contemplated for early 2018, once about 34,000 products are SmartLabel enabled.

In baking, brands currently in the SmartLabel system include Nature’s Own, Dave’s Killer Bread and Alpine Valley Bakery bread from Flowers Foods, Inc.; Freihofer’s from Bimbo Bakeries USA; and the King’s Hawaiian line of bread and rolls. The chance for grain-based foods to use SmartLabel to showcase the extraordinary benefits of its products and share in-depth information to consumers hungry for the facts represents an opportunity well worth exploring.