Mintel calls for clear and impartial food packaging

Britons are taking to heart, and stomach, the old adage that you are what you eat.

According to two recent Mintel reports, sales of ‘functional foods’ – foods designed to provide specific health benefits through long-term consumption – are booming. Consumers are also spending record amounts on groceries that they believe are ethically produced.

The functional and ethical food markets are valued at an impressive £835m and £1.75bn, respectively. But if this momentum is to be maintained, Mintel says manufacturers must clarify – and substantiate – communications about their products’ nutritional value and origins.

Too many labels on packaging are creating ‘confusion’, says the market research group. And a plethora of unsanctioned health claims are undermining products’ credibility in consumers’ minds.

Mintel’s findings are supported by a report published earlier this month by branding group Design Bridge. The Obesity Timebomb, which looked at ‘principal grocery purchasers’ across England for a month, examines the role packaging plays in educating consumers and promoting health issues.

‘What we perceived is that there’s been a breakdown in trust. People feel very alienated from the messages they’re receiving,’ says Design Bridge head of brand strategy and innovation Simon Black, who was instrumental in compiling the study.

He says people are ‘unanimously’ calling for simple, standardised labelling on packaging – and would also welcome some form of regulation. ‘One of the more successful solutions [that Design Bridge mocked up and presented to focus groups] added a graphic element to the story. There was a panel on the back of pack, endorsed by the Food Standards Agency,’ he says.

Black emphasises that regulation must be by an independent organisation. ‘You can’t just use a celebrity, or a chef, or someone else who has been paid,’ he says.

It appears that the wheels are already in motion. Last week, the Department of Health issued a paper recommending the use of traffic light-style icons, a move that is receiving some support from the FSA. The European Commission is also reportedly considering making it mandatory for manufacturers to declare their products’ levels of sugar, fat and salt on packaging.

Mintel consumer analyst Amanda Lintott says on-pack health messages are ‘crucial’, but she believes they will only succeed if they are part of an overall education, marketing and advertising push. ‘I think it’s hard for packaging to work on its own. It’s usually the final port of call for drumming across messages,’ she says.

Black has more confidence in its ability to affect consumer behaviour. Participants in Design Bridge’s study felt packaging has a ‘high degree of responsibility in influencing choice between healthy and less healthy products’, he says.

‘We’re a bit over-educated now, but I think we can still guide people with packaging,’ concurs Blast associate director Christian Eves.

The most successful design approaches embrace simplicity, he says. ‘You don’t want to bombard people with messages; there are ways to convey them through graphics and materials.’

Eves advocates the use of ‘earthy’ graphics showing the product’s quality, backed by an endorsed strapline. ‘Flora Pro-Activ has done it well. It’s got the Family Heart Association marque on the packaging, and you really trust it,’ he says.

Wren & Rowe managing director Paul Foulkes-Arellano agrees that a graphic focus on ‘appetite appeal’ is important. But he says health messages should be built into marketing and advertising and should not appear on packaging.

Though Foulkes-Arellano has no objection to the Government’s traffic-light style icons, he draws the line at flashes. ‘They’re death to healthy packaging. Consumers are becoming more sophisticated and switched-on and don’t believe those kinds of messages,’ he says.

Foulkes-Arellano says honest, accessible copywriting is the way forward. ‘Innocent’s [packaging] is a good example of this,’ he says, citing ingredients lists made up of familiar items such as ‘two bananas and four blueberries’.

‘It’s the benchmark,’ he says, ‘and nowhere on the packaging does it say, “This is good for you”.’

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