The statement of task asks the committee to consider the potential benefits and effectiveness of a single, standardized front-of-package (FOP) symbol system. Any response to this task would be incomplete without considering the context in which such a system would be implemented. The committee identified two important contextual factors for this report, the food package environment and the regulatory environment. This chapter focuses on the food package environment, in particular the types and amount of information currently on food packages. By better understanding what consumers already encounter on food packages, insights can be gained into the requirements of an FOP nutrition rating system capable of achieving the goals of healthy consumer choices and population health benefits.
The basic functions of food packaging include protecting and preserving the product, providing consumers with product information, including ingredient and nutrient content, and marketing (Coles, 2003; Hawkes, 2010). The marketing function involves determining the structure of a package to make it easy to transport and display, easy for consumers to access and serve its contents, and distinctive in size, shape, or texture. It also includes exterior graphic design—using colors, typography, images, and messages to attract consumer attention and make the product and brand appealing to potential buyers (Teng, 1991; Nancarrow et al., 1998; Underwood et al., 2001). Understanding package design and its role in food marketing is critical to understanding the context in which an FOP nutrition rating system would be implemented.
Package design is a $1 trillion industry (Horovitz, 2011). Even a small change in sales can mean the difference between profit and loss for many products, and packaging can influence consumer purchase decisions. When shopping for food, consumers face aisle after aisle of shelves filled with very similar products. Information from food industry reports and leaders indicates that consumers are spending less time on food shopping, making quick decisions at the shelf and placing great value on being able to get in and out of a store quickly (Park et al., 1989; Inman and Winer, 1998; IRI, 2009). Product packaging is designed to influence those decisions. It is the one aspect
of marketing that is present at the moment of choice and reaches nearly all consumers who are purchasing from a given product category (Behaeghel, 1991; Peters, 1994). Effective package design helps products stand out amidst the competition for consumers’ attention and conveys information about the qualities of the product and/or brand (Nancarrow et al., 1998; Underwood et al., 2001).
Food packages today contain a wide array of information, including branding, product images, product claims, and promotions (see Table 2-1). Branding seeks to build, reinforce, and convey a product’s identity. Brands that are familiar, easily recognizable, and associated with positive attributes such as quality, value, health, or enjoyment generally have a competitive advantage over less recognizable brands (Aaker, 1991). On food packages, product images, names, slogans, symbols, logos, and licensed characters are all used to build, reinforce, or convey brand identity to consumers. Many packages also include product images or photographs that show the appearance of the food inside. Product claims include a wide range of messages, from descriptions of the product (e.g., “crispy toasted rice”) or how it is made (e.g., “organic”) to subjective evaluations (e.g., “delicious”) and nutrition-related claims. Nutrition claims can be structure/function claims (e.g., “calcium builds strong bones”), nutrient content claims (e.g., “zero calories” or “good source of vitamin C”), or health claims (e.g., “While many factors affect heart
|Branding||Name, logos, slogans, characters associated with brand|
|Product images||Photographs or illustrations of the product
(e.g., bowl or spoonful of steaming soup)
|What is the product
(e.g., non-dairy creamer)
|Selected product attributes
(e.g., now crunchier)
How product is made
|Process used in selecting ingredients, manufacturing, packaging
(e.g., organic, eco-friendly, recycled paper)
|Linking a product ingredient to a known function in humans
(e.g., calcium builds strong bones)
Nutrient content claims
|Characterizing the level of a nutrient listed in the Nutrition Facts panel
(e.g., “low fat” or “reduced sugar”)
|Health claims||Characterizing the relationship of a substance to a disease or health-related condition
(e.g., “Diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure, a disease associated with many factors.”)
|Purchase of the product confers access to other benefits
(e.g., instant savings coupon, $1 coupon inside)
|Formal affiliation with an issue or organization
(e.g., pink ribbons, official soft drink of…)
|Cross marketing with other products
(e.g., characters from popular cartoons or movies)
|Package contents include free novelties
(e.g., toys, games)
disease, diets low in saturated fats and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease”). Chapter 3 of this report describes the regulatory criteria for making such claims. Promotions can include special offers (e.g., discounts, coupons), giveaways (e.g., toys, games), endorsements (e.g., from celebrities), partnerships (e.g., with professional sports leagues, hit movies), and sponsorships (e.g., of an event or for a cause) designed to increase product appeal to consumers. When evaluating the possible benefits of an FOP nutrition rating system, it is important to recognize that these other types of package information may also be present.
Data collected periodically by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) through the Food Label and Package Survey1 (FLAPS) indicate that the use of product claims on food packages is widespread. This recurring survey collects data on processed, packaged food labels in the U.S. food supply and monitors the food industry’s response to FDA labeling regulations. The most recent FLAPS (2006-2007) included a representative sample of 1,227 products from 57 product groups (e.g., baby food, beverages, bread), with the number of sampled products within a group set in proportion to sales for that group. An analysis of the data in aggregate revealed that more than half of product packages (53.2 percent) included nutrient content claims, the majority of which focused on fat (22.4 percent), calories (10.3 percent), or sodium (7.5 percent) (Brandt et al., 2010).
Within a food category, particularly breakfast cereals, the use of certain types of package information and product claims occurs with greater frequency than others. To illustrate, a study by Page et al. (2008), discussed in detail below, found that nearly all cereal packages studied (93 percent) contained a picture of the product, 81 percent included health or nutrient content claims, and 64 percent included other product claims. In addition, half of the products reviewed included cartoon characters, and 30 percent included images of other merchandise or toys on the package.
The committee considered not only the variety of packaging information, but also the total amount of information on a package. Data sought by the committee and provided by consultants included an examination of the number of promotions and product, health, and ingredient claims on the packages of 20 top-selling brands of crackers, yogurt, and frozen pizza in the United States. The average package of yogurt contained 5.4 instances of such information, followed by crackers (3.0), and frozen pizza (1.6). Cumulatively, these types of package marketing accounted for 12.7 percent of package surface area. By comparison, FOP nutrition symbols on these products accounted for 2-3 percent of surface area. The study did not count or measure instances of branding or product images appearing on the packages.
In a study of cereal packages aimed to appeal to children, Page et al. (2008) conducted a content analysis of 122 cereal packages available in the United States and created an index of total package promotions that summed across the different promotion strategies measured. Applying this index to the total package surface area, the investigators were able to identify an average of 6.4 promotions per cereal package. The FLAPS study and its data analysis and the data submitted to the committee together describe a significant amount of information on food packages that contributes to an overall “busy” food package environment.
The committee also identified evidence suggesting that a high percentage of food products bearing nutrition claims and other product information used in marketing are likely to be high in undesirable nutrients such as saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars. Findings from these studies do not suggest that product packaging includes false claims that are in violation of food labeling regulations (see Chapter 3), rather that many packages containing foods high in undesirable nutrients include other claims about positive nutrient-related characteristics of
1 Available online: http://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/ConsumerInformation/ucm122084.htm (accessed July 19, 2011).
the product. In other words, the package of a food high in fat would not claim it is low in fat, but might highlight that it is high in vitamin A.
In one example, a community-wide study reviewed all packaged food products (n = 56,900) in six grocery stores in a small Midwestern city to ascertain the prevalence of four types of claims—statements of fact, structure/ function claims, nutrient content claims, and health claims—and to determine the frequency of such claims on food products high in saturated fat, sodium, and sugars. Nearly half (49 percent) of all food products in the stores used nutrition claims in marketing. Nutrient content claims were most common, appearing on 76 percent of packages that contained nutrition claims. Among those products that used nutrition claims in marketing, about half (48 percent) were found to be high in saturated fats or sodium (based on the standard of >20 percent Daily Value (%DV) per serving from the Nutrition Facts panel) or sugar (based on standards for sugars developed by Colby et al., 2010). In total 23 percent of all products contained nutrition marketing and were also high in saturated fats, sodium, and/or sugars (Colby et al., 2010).
In a web-based analysis, Schwartz et al. (2008) examined differences in nutritional quality of cereals marketed to children, defined as having a licensed character, television or movie theme, or other child-oriented promotion on the package, compared to cereals not marketed to children. The cereals were also analyzed for nutrient content claims and health claims. Data analysis showed that cereals marketed to children were not significantly different from those not marketed to children for saturated fat, sugar, or cholesterol per serving, as reported on the Nutrition Facts panel. However on a per gram basis, cereals marketed to children were significantly higher in energy, sodium, carbohydrate, and sugar and significantly lower in fiber and protein compared to cereals not marketed to children. When the overall nutritional quality of cereals bearing nutrient content claims or health claims was compared to those without claims, there was no difference for fat, sodium, fiber, or energy. In other words, the presence or absence of nutrient content claims and health claims did not distinguish between cereals of greater and lesser nutritional quality, suggesting that such information might not be especially useful to consumers trying to make a choice on the basis of these claims.
In Australia, Chapman et al. (2006) examined two product promotion strategies—premium offers (e.g., giveaways, competitions) and cartoon and movie character promotions—on food packages in seven categories targeted to children. This study found that these marketing strategies were used on a range of 9 to 35 percent of packages across the seven categories. Additionally, three-quarters of all promotions involved cartoon or movie characters, and the promotions were more likely to appear on less healthy food products. These results suggest that products bearing promotions, particularly those aimed at children, are likely to have a poor nutritional profile.
New types of package labeling are also coming into the marketplace. The most common of these is “value-based labeling,” a marketing strategy that positions products as satisfying consumer concerns about social, environmental, or food safety issues (Basu and Hicks, 2008) and reflects industry efforts to make changes that respond to these values. Labels for “fair trade” coffee or “dolphin-safe” tuna, for foods that are “organic,” “locally grown,” “free-range,” or “farm-raised,” and for packaging materials that are “recycled” or “biodegradable” are all examples of value-based labeling used on food packages (De Pelsmacker et al., 2005; Anders and Moser, 2008; Hustvedt et al., 2008; Jacquet and Pauly, 2008; McEachern and Warnaby, 2008; Carlsson et al., 2010). “Eco-labeling” is one of the fastest-growing segments of value-based marketing. In the 1990s there were only a handful of eco-labeling programs worldwide; today there are more than 415, including 78 different “green” labels for food products alone (Woolverton and Dimitri, 2010). In 1995, 23 states had programs for branding and promoting agricultural products, e.g., “locally grown”; by 2006, 43 states had such programs (Patterson, 2006). Consumer understanding of these terms and labels is generally low, and studies suggest that the growing number of eco-labeling programs may contribute to consumer misunderstanding and misinterpretation of labeled products (Conner and Christy, 2004; Henryks and Pearson, 2010).
To be effective, FOP nutrition labels must compete in a very busy and ever changing package environment with an array of messages designed to capture consumer attention and promote products. When present, FOP symbols account for a very small proportion of package surface area relative to other food package marketing
icons, promotions, and images and may have the most “competition” from the least healthy products. Moreover, food packages frequently include nutrition-related claims that might be seen by consumers as suggesting positive nutritional value despite information provided in an FOP symbol system that shows high levels of saturated fat, sodium, added sugars, or calories. Such a package environment could weaken the impact of an FOP nutrition rating system intended to guide consumers toward healthier food choices.
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