A focus on health is nothing new to the food industry. But now, it’s a business strategy that might drive purchasing, plus ensure consumer trust and loyalty for most companies, according to public-relations firm Edelman. This signals the importance of health and “green” strategies, especially for those who produce food and beverage products.
The 11-country, 15,000-person study, called the “Edelman Health Engagement Barometer 2010,” found the vast majority “trust a company more that is effectively engaged in health” (72%) and either “recommend or buy products from those companies” (65%). But about half (51%) said “business in general is doing only a fair or poor job” of doing so, and only 36% “trust business to fulfill its role in addressing health.” What’s more, the survey found that both personal and environmental health are important: 73% believe it is “as important to protect the public’s health as it is to protect the environment,” and 69% say businesses “should put as much effort into maintaining and improving personal and public health as it puts into the environment.”
Our industry faces these challenges on every front. Do the stories about, let’s say, possible brain cancer from cell phones or toxic VOCs inhaled by pumping gasoline—both scenarios ubiquitous—receive as much attention as the health effects of various ingredients? Perhaps, but people’s emotional connections to food and its recognized relationship to health and environment put it in the direct, glaring spotlight.
Because of this, food companies are well on the road to addressing health and environmental issues, but they sometimes find themselves at cross-purposes. For example, according to the National Restaurant Association, one of the top-10 foodservice trends is “mainstreaming sustainability” with such concepts as buying local and organic, and moving to meatless. Yet, a recent study found that, if the entire world became vegan, the total greenhouse-gas reduction would only come to 7%, and that organic food production actually increases greenhouse gas-emissions (“Green Food Choice May Not Be So Green,” ScienceDaily). Or take the consumer’s love/hate relationship with healthy and unhealthy foods. General nutritional consensus says that high-sodium or high-fat fast food is bad. But, as companies churn out low-sodium products, a new Packaged Facts report says that reducing sodium is not at the top of consumers’ list of priorities; they are more interested in eating more fruit, vegetables and fiber, or limiting saturated fat, sugar and trans fat. Concurrently, KFC introduced its Double Down Chicken Sandwich (540 calories, 32 grams of fat and 1,380 mg of sodium), which might not yet be a bona fide success, but is certainly buzz-worthy, with plenty of people giving it a thumbs up—nutrition experts not included.
The path to a healthy body and a healthy earth is littered with such dichotomies, so product developers have to tread carefully to deliver promises successfully. But if we do, in the long term, we’ll all be the better for it.
-Lynn A. Kuntz