One of the sticking points about the use of “organic,” “natural,” “fat-free” and similar terms on food packaging has been determining their effectiveness. More...
One of the sticking points about the use of “organic,” “natural,” “fat-free” and similar terms on food packaging has been determining their effectiveness.
There’s no doubt that such categories have been popular. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic food in 2008 (the latest year available) reached $22.9 billion, a 15.8% increase. Mintel’s Global New Products Database listed 488 new food products making an “organic” claim within the last six months and 1,081 in the last year. “Natural,” a much more loosely regulated claim, appeared on 1,890 new food products in the last six months and 3,762 in the last year, according to Mintel.
However, determining the overall impact of these good- or better-for-you terms can be problematic, for several reasons. Many food products make multiple such claims. Health claims are more pervasive in certain categories, such as fresh produce, that have a natural (so to speak) advantage in this regard. Some health claims, like “omega-3 fatty acids” or “antioxidant,” are comparatively rare, making their sales impact harder to detect across a broad product category.
Nielsen’s new Healthy Eating Index is an attempt to finesse these difficulties using bar code sales data. It combines 13 good- or better-for-you categories and weighs them according to a host of factors. Sales blips caused by comparatively rare claims are given more weight, on the ground that those claims are more likely to have contributed to the increases. Conversely, broader claims such as “natural” or “reduced fat” are downplayed, because they’re so common that unrelated market factors like price fluctuations could account for variations in sales.
The Healthy Eating Index crunches this voluminous sales data into a single number that indicates how healthy America’s eating habits are. The index scored 402 in 2009, up from 389 in 2008. Seasonal variations are observable, such as a dip over the holidays and a subsequent rise, no doubt due to New Year’s resolutions. This could be a useful picture, not just of how well America is eating, but of how strongly food packagers should make healthy claims-and what kind of claims they should make.