Numbers that connect with consumers are suddenly appearing on the front panel of dozens of food labels. They come on the heels of the 100-Calorie packs of cookies and snacks that have been flying off the shelves. Information that connects with consumers boldly and is placed on the front of the package can pay enormous dividends. Branded products that don’t have anything useful to say up front may start feeling and being left behind.

Consumers have found it hard to get useful information out of food labels for many years. A new survey released by Deloitte found that “less than 1/3 (26%) say companies now provide sufficient information on their products/packaging to assist in purchase decisions.”

Bringing useful information to the front of the food label cuts through clutter, raises the quality image of processed food and connects with those moments of truth when purchase decisions are made.

Forget about struggling through that nutrition panel to extract something meaningful from the list of ingredients and serving sizes. Suddenly, there are fat and calorie bullets right on the front of Michelina entrees, and right below South Beach Living item name, bold print says: “250 Calories. 25 grams protein,” “Good deal,” says the shopper, and pops one in her cart.

But beware. There is a dark side to showcasing selected numbers-numbers that are missing may appear deceptive. Says one shopper, “Look at the Kashi entrees-they have Protein and Fiber numbers on the front, but no calorie number! There must be a lot! And look at that Tyson chicken-it says 10 grams of protein, 0 grams of Trans Fat. That doesn’t show total fat or calories either, so it must be loaded.”

To look at how the information gap varied by product category, we asked shoppers on The Consumer Network panel to rate the helpfulness of the product information now provided on 20 food and seven non-food categories. The table “Product Info Ratings” (opposite page) shows the percent of consumers who rated the on-package information Excellent or Good versus the percent who rated it Fair, Poor or Awful in each category.

The highest ratings went to milk, which provides a lot of specific on-pack information these days. Besides sell-by dates, which could be larger and bolder but are almost always visible, most bottles show the fat level and many include prominent banners identifying them as ORGANIC or FROM COWS RAISED WITHOUT BSF.

The real problem with the low ratings in many categories is the perception of distrust that usually accompanies them. Many consumers feel that much would-be-useful information is withheld or provided in small, hard-to-understand print so that the products will be purchased in spite of what’s in them. “On product labels, print is often too small due to multi-lingual packaging and ink color. This is especially troubling in products that contain harmful ingredients or allergy information.”

Among the other ratings I found especially interesting are those for steak (30% good) and ground beef (70% good). These ratings suggest that consumers are finding ground beef labels more useful than steak labels, at a time when beef brands like Black Angus are proliferating. The steak labels do include the cut, but don’t include fat percentages or cooking times or temperatures that might help prospective buyers feel more confident of the taste they can expect to get for their investment. Perhaps that’s what steak houses are doing so well these days, when other expensive restaurant formats are struggling.

The fish ratings are interesting too. Consumers wrote:

“I want to know where it was caught.”

“Is it okay for me to freeze it, or was it shipped frozen?”

“Need to have cooking information (bake, fry, broil) and cooking times. Would like to try more varieties, but not sure how to cook. Guessing hasn’t always turned out well.”

“On frozen fish, they should tell the weight of the breading versus the fish. I stopped buying it because I got some that was all breading.”

Information is especially important in categories that consumers aren’t sure they can trust. During my supermarket days, one of my nicest win-wins involved getting some of merchandisers to test new fish and seafood signs in a cross-section of demographically matched stores. The test stores used signs that identified half of the products in the case as previously frozen:

Shipped frozen. Do not refreeze.

The merchants were sure the signs would kill the sales of thawed items, but sales went up in all the stores with the new signs, even for fish that was flagged “Do not refreeze.”

Many things have changed since those signs were tested, but one thing hasn’t: Consumers buy more when they trust the information that is provided to them. And it’s possible that front-panel numbers are perceived as more reliable and trustworthy to a degree that can help to rebuild consumers’ trust in and quality perception of packaged foods.

The low information ratings that our panelists gave to hot takeout foods reflect the fact that most supermarkets provide little or no information about their prepared foods. Few of the shoppers participating in this survey, however, shop at Wegmans, which provides the full Monty on hot foods, including the same kind of nutrition alerts that appear on its private label products throughout the store. Here’s the sign over Wegmans ready-to-eat Chili, which is one of the products offered in their soup bar:

Wegmans homestyle recipe with beef, chunks of tomato, and a special blend of spices. Each serving (1 cup) contains 246 calories, 24g. carbohydrates, 6g. fiber, and 10g. fat.) (HF )High fiber, (A) Allergies (contains fish).

Similar information on entrees and sides appears throughout the prepared food sections.

MASHED POTATOES. Russet potatoes, real butter, cream. Each serving (1/2) cup contains 120 calories, 4g. fat, 16g. carbohydrates, and 3g. fiber.

As consumers see more of this kind of precise information, general claims become less meaningful. One shopper pointed to the Oscar Mayer bologna and said: “That package says Light Bologna and this one says 98% Fat Free Bologna. How am I supposed to know the difference?”

Besides ingredients and calories, many consumers would like to see bigger and bolder expiration and sell-by dates (one company uses “enjoy by” dates) which are especially important in this economy, when so many consumers are doing their best to stretch their dollars. “When I have to throw something out because it went bad before the use-by date, I see dollars just floating down the drain.”

There is nothing new about the power of numbers in selling products. Numbers work when they are credible and relevant to the purchase decision.  F&BP

Mona Doyle is the CEO of The Consumer Network Inc., a firm that regularly takes the pulse of consumers on packaging issues. She publishes The Shopper Report newsletter. Contact her at 800-291-0100 or Mona@ConsumerNetwork.org.