Dan Murphy: A Love Affair With Labeling

Consumers are mildly interested in labels. ( Beyond Meat )

Marketers always tout the impact of food labels. But that’s because consumers SAY they matter, whereas flavor, convenience and costs are far more important factors in what they buy.

Whenever the s-word appears in some scientific journal article, get ready to view the conclusions with skepticism.

I’m talking about the word “survey.”

Conduct a survey on virtually any topic and the results will almost universally reflect what respondents think the person or organization conducting the survey wants to hear.

Ask people about their driving habits, for example, and a majority of people will insist that they faithfully obey the speed limit — for the most part, anyway. But spend five minutes driving on any freeway in the nation outside of rush hour and try cruising along at or below the posted speed limit. Not only will virtually every car and truck on the road go roaring by, but you’ll also collect your fair share of one-finger salutes and angry glares of the kind otherwise reserved for single adults who dare to shush some parent’s adorable toddlers in a restaurant or on an airplane.

Or conduct a survey focused on whether or not consumers want information about the presence of GMOs or (gasp!) gluten printed on a package of breakfast cereal or a bag of processed snack chips and the results will “conclusively demonstrate” that people seriously care about such label statements.

Then spend the proverbial five minutes in the cereal aisle or the snack food aisle at your friendly neighborhood supermarket and watch how many of those same concerned consumers bother to review the labeling of the products they toss into their shopping carts.

About the same percentage as drivers obeying the speed limit.

Labeling fails to inform

That latter study isn’t hypothetical; it was conducted by researchers at Cornell University to determine the impact of regulatory restrictions on how alt-meat products are allowed to be labeled. According to a report on their study posted on TheConversation.com website, the economists conducting the survey “wanted to find out how regulating use of the word ‘meat’ would affect consumers’ understanding of ingredients, nutritional content and food choices.”

The short answer: Not so much.

In the study, they showed people either “regular” packaging or faux foods labeled as “meat” and asked whether prohibiting manufacturers from labeling plant-based and cell-based products as meat would make consumers more or less confused about alt-meat products’ ingredients and nutritional content.

The survey of 1,502 households revealed that respondents estimated that the plant-based shamburgers contained 51% fewer calories than they actually did. Not only that, but almost one-third of respondents thought that Beyond Burger products contain ground beef.

In other words, as consumers we’re not only lackadaisical about reading food labels, but when we do, we’re not coming away with highly accurate information.

Finally, the Cornell researchers, perhaps inadvertently, confirmed a hypothesis I offered when the first wave of alt-meat products hit the market many months ago: Banning the use of the word “meat” on plant-based product packaging won’t influence people to avoid such products.

That’s because part of this study involved an experiment in which the researchers asked consumers to choose among packages of Beyond Meat, frozen beef patties, fresh beef patties and a lab-grown alt-meat product not yet commercially available.

As the TheConversation.com article noted, “Eliminating the word ‘meat’ from nontraditional product labels did not affect the percentage of consumers who chose traditional meat products,” the study ‘s authors reported. “Our data suggest that, at least in the short run, the meat industry has little to gain from advocating for labeling restrictions on these plant-based protein companies.”

To which I would add that dreaming up fanciful names for alt-meat products probably enhances sales — if marketers invest heavily in TV and online advertising.

Because merely slapping a familiar word or phrase on food products, like other labeling information, doesn’t do much.

Other than take up space on the package.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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