Food consumption patterns have evolved over time and continue to be shaped by the influences of national or international trade, social systems, political impacts, economic shifts, and—of course—time.
We have transitioned from cooking wholesome meals at home to enjoying wholesome food delivery services. During the early the late 1940s and early 1950s, food labeling was predominantly confined to food products intended for “special dietary uses.” It wasn’t until the early 1960s that food products aimed at supporting weight loss programs were required to state “low calorie” on the label. Growing regulatory requirements like this and many others resulted in the evolution of food labels as well. They transitioned from a source of quick information (mostly about the ingredients and their nutritional value), to a tool that would influence consumer choices. Food labels in the digital age of information also add an “ethical” facet to a brand.
Here are a few things worth considering when it comes to food labeling:
Something lacking at many brainstorm sessions when deciding whether to rebrand a product or to redesign the food label is design thinking. Design thinking is a strategic and interactive process that relies on rapid prototyping to yield a final product that is designed with the end user in mind. When a product is formulated with a target audience in mind, the food label should act as the bridge between the consumer and the producer. Avoid catch-phrases and ensure that the language on the label is simple, to the point, and brief.
Transparency Before Trust
Nestle’s Coffee Mate was recently the subject of a class action lawsuit claiming that the company’s label was “misleading,” because the vanilla flavor is artificial and not the product of real vanilla. Similarly, Coca-Cola’s Vitamin Water had to undergo a label modification to clarify what the product really was. Decision makers are often conflicted between marketing strategies and (factual) nutritional information taking up fair shares of the food label real estate.
An example of this is the classic labeling approach to modern-day poultry products. Although it is prohibited in the U.S. to incorporate hormones in poultry production, almost every brand advertises that its product has “no hormones added.” Today’s consumers are willing to pay a premium for a product they place their trust in. To win their trust, brands must evaluate how transparent their food systems really are, and food labels are the voice of the brand.
While most consumers are unaware of this, there are two broad categories of health claims that are approved by FDA: authorized and qualified health claims. Thus far, FDA has approved 12 health claims. The federal agency further clarifies that health claims are “limited to claims about disease risk reduction.”
The Battle Between “Best-Before” and “Use-By”
In simple terms, “best-before” implies a quality parameter and “use-by” implies a safety parameter. If these terms weren’t confusing enough for our consumers, we have other layers too, such as “sell by”, “display until,” etc. Although businesses are not obligated to explain what each terminology means, when it comes to expiration dates, it might be a good idea to create a more “human” experience, and take one more step by explaining what it means.
Let’s face it—despite increasing ways to communicate with one other, we are still terrible communicators as a species. Food labels certainly present the opportunity for brands to better communicate with their consumers.