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Helping Consumers Avoid Nutrition Confusion

June 5, 2017

By: Robbie Burns- Vice President, Health and Nutrition Policy

It’s “chaos” out there.

That’s how one industry executive described widespread consumer confusion  today  about nutrition This state of confusion is only exacerbated by a surge in some information resources, all at the fingertips of the consumer, that are at best misleading and at worst inaccurate.

This topic made for a spirited discussion at the GMA Science Forum in Washington DC, in April where a panel of stakeholders outlined the key implications for industry and consumers and some possible solutions for navigating this new landscape.

“Chaos describes the communications environment around nutrition,” said Shelly Maniscalco, MPH, RD, who is President of Nutrition on Demand.  “People are defining things for themselves,” Barbara Schneeman, PhD, the Emeritus Professor of Nutrition at UC Davis, said about nutritional terms and information. When they learn that their understanding doesn’t mesh with reality, “it can lead to a loss of trust.”

A big part of the challenge is the “disproportionate voice of bloggers,” said Hank Cardello, Senior Fellow and Director, Obesity Solutions Initiative, Hudson Institute. “Research is dissed as illegitimate.  Everyone is doing studies so everything has the same credibility.” He said the situation calls out for an approach that brings together legitimate voices to communicate consensus opinions.

The complexity of this situation only grows when individual consumer behavior toward nutrition guidance is factored into the equation, Cardello said.   On one extreme are “those who get it” and follow sound health advice. On the other end are those who “couldn’t care less,” and not surprisingly, this group runs into the biggest obesity problems. In the middle is a segment trying to practice good nutrition despite their confusion.  Many in this group are parents pressured by frenetic lifestyles. The good news is they want to do the right thing and are typically open to nutrition education.

Today’s consumer confusion may have a déjà vu effect on some industry veterans.  Back in 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was signed into law to help bring a sense of order to nutrient content and health claims so there would be greater clarity for the consumer on the meaning of these terms on product packages.  Today the problem has resurfaced, but in a different way. Now consumers tend to view a wider range of factors in assessing health benefits. “So we’re back in a state of confusion,” Schneeman said.

The GMA session was moderated by Sally Squires, senior vice president and director of Health and Wellness Communications, Powell Tate DC.  Panelists at the session outlined a range of insightful solutions to help reduce confusion:

  • Back to Basics: At a time when consumers are adopting “obscure diets,” health professionals need to “steer people back to basics,” Maniscalco said. This includes urging them to eat whole grains, fruits and vegetables. “People don’t realize it can be that simple,” she explained.
  • Kids’ Strategies: Schools are making strides in communicating better nutrition to kids, but a lot of these efforts are passive, said Stephanie Scarmo, PhD, MPH, who is Officer, Health Programs, The Pew Charitable Trusts. More active efforts like cooking classes are effective with kids, she asserted.
  • Transparency: Companies need to be transparent with information for consumers, said Cardello. Beyond that, they need to understand the business benefits of fostering socially responsible positions, he added.
  • Education: Consumers open to learning about nutrition should be targeted for education, said Cardello. For those resistant to education, the best strategy is the “stealth approach” of “getting as much good food in front of them as possible,” such as by raising the profile of better-for-you products.


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