A large majority of consumers (83%) are confused at least some of the time about food ingredients, and 64% are willing to switch brands if they find one with ingredients they better understand, according to a survey from Label Insight.
It found 35% of consumers do not buy foods if they find the ingredients are confusing, and 54% are willing to pay more for a product with ingredients they understand.
In addition, if manufacturers provide easy-to-understand definitions for the ingredients in their products, 84% of those surveyed said they would have more trust in food companies.
This latest report provides another layer of motivation for food companies to clean up ingredient labels, or at least to give consumers better information about what's in their products. The trend toward cleaner labels – or shorter, simpler ingredient lists – has become the new norm in the food industry, according to Innova Market Insights, which found nearly one in five tracked products were positioned with a clean label in 2014.
However, few shoppers understand what “clean label” really means, and consumer-facing terms like natural or healthy intended to communicate the idea also are poorly understood and often loosely defined by manufacturers.
The Label Insight survey did not look at which ingredients or products consumers had the most difficulty understanding, but it did say that more general label claims like “clean,” “healthy” and “natural” were often considered to be confusing. Only about a third of respondents said they completely understood what these terms meant.
With so much uncertainty, companies sometimes get into trouble.
In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration reported that at least four varieties of Kind snack bars were violating their ability to print "healthy" on their product labels because they contained too much saturated fat to be considered healthy. The FDA reversed its decision on Kind’s “healthy” claim in May 2016 and vowed to take another look at the word’s definition following a petition put forward by Kind. At a public hearing in March by the FDA over how to redefine the term and better align it with modern science and diets, the agency heard from many stakeholders who said the term was outdated.
The term "natural" also has been a focal point of litigation in recent years as consumers and public health advocates demand simple, clean ingredients lists and transparency in marketing claims, ingredients and processing. Several food companies including Dole, General Mills and Post Holdings have faced lawsuits. In the Post lawsuit, for example, plaintiffs took issue with the company's use of the phrases "100% Natural Whole Grain Wheat" and a "Natural Source of Fiber" because the cereal's wheat ingredient come from a crop that farmers treat with a synthetic herbicide.
With half of those in the Label Insight survey saying they find ingredients “extremely important” when deciding what to buy, it is encouraging that consumers can be convinced to buy a product if better ingredient information is available.
Nearly half of Americans (46%) already research ingredients on their mobile phones while shopping if they find something confusing, so there is an opportunity for food manufacturers to make this information more directly accessible; if not actually printed on-pack, then perhaps by providing a link on the product itself. Ninety-five percent of those surveyed said they were at least “somewhat interested” in technology that allows them to access detailed ingredient information on their mobile phones.
With consumers shunning artificial colors and flavors, and trending toward products with fewer ingredients, food manufacturers would be wise to be as open and honest with shoppers as possible. The consumer is watching.