CPGmatters: Too Many Nutrition Programs Compete with MyPyramid

Feb 19, 2009

By Dale Buss

Through a
special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current
article from the monthly e-zine, CPGmatters.

As he ends his 15-month
tenure leading the federal government’s MyPyramid food-guidance
program to a new apex, Brian Wansink is troubled
by growing competition to MyPyramid that is posed
by nutrition-rating programs launched in grocery stores by individual companies
ranging from food and beverage manufacturers to large supermarket chains.

“My concern with
a lot of these programs is twofold,” the food marketing professor
at Cornell University told CPGmatters.
“One is that they can sometimes be confusing to consumers, because it’s
not very transparent how they decide what score to give a product – or
how many check marks or smiley faces. In most cases, that’s proprietary,
and they say, ‘Trust us.'”

“The second thing
is that the goal of these programs shouldn’t be necessarily to get a person
to buy whole wheat Pop Tarts instead of regular Pop Tarts, but to get people
to eat in balance. And my fear is that if people end up eating by the stars
or by the numbers, it can lead them to eat incrementally healthier but
not globally healthier – you can eat totally out of balance.”

And Professor Wansink has
a third concern: The more distracted the American public, retailers and
CPG manufacturers become by the cacophony of other nutrition-ratings systems
out there, the less they will be able to focus on what he believes is the
most valuable diet-planning tool of all: MyPyramid.

Released in 2005, MyPyramid
replaced the long-used federal Food Guide Pyramid that the government launched
in 1992 and which, in turn, had extended the U.S. Agriculture Department’s
long-established efforts to help American citizens figure out how to have
healthy diets.

“With so many of
these [programs], it becomes a House of Babel,” said Professor Wansink,
head of the Food & Brand Lab at Cornell and author of Marketing
Nutrition: Soy, Functional Foods, Biotechnology and Obesity
“That’s why we stand behind MyPyramid: It
doesn’t say, ‘Buy this,’ or, ‘Don’t buy this,’ but
it demystifies what you’re getting in a processed food.”

Discussion Question:
Are all the competing nutrition-rating programs diluting the message
behind MyPyramid? Do you agree they’re only
confusing consumers and their simplicity could be promoting out-of-balance
diets? On the other hand, what is the value in retailers and vendors
developing their own proprietary programs?

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12 Comments on "CPGmatters: Too Many Nutrition Programs Compete with MyPyramid"

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Mark Lilien
13 years 3 months ago

Consumers aren’t confused. They believe what and whom they want to believe. And most folks eat what they like. They might read labels but they’re unlikely to habitually eat something they don’t enjoy. Food processors know that Americans like a few basic flavors: sweet, spicy, salty, meat, and chocolate. Every try to buy a can of soup that hasn’t got sugar (or its equivalent) and salt? Every try to buy a processed meat product that hasn’t got sugar and salt? It’s not easy finding a diet soda without salt. And forget about any fast food menu. Except for the baked potato at Wendy’s (and you have to skip all the toppings), you’re going to eat salt and sugar no matter what. The REAL American food pyramid: salt and sugar 8 times a day, with some meat, pepper, and chocolate at least twice a week.

Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson
13 years 3 months ago
Because most consumers shop multiple stores, the likelihood for confusion across the multiple nutrition ratings systems is clearly a concern. Merchants should look for ways to create an emotional bond with consumers around health and nutrition. But these proprietary systems feel more like me-too initiatives, i.e, if you’re making or selling foods and bevs, you almost have to have one. Competing systems across various stores and product brands doesn’t help empower consumers with the knowledge needed to make confident, nutritional choices. And while merchants spend dollars to create new systems to ostensibly differentiate their system from their competitors’ systems, it’s likely the consumer only sees one big jumble of stars, points, ratings and color codes. I’d like to see a merchant or manufacturer take a get-real approach by supplying consumers with education and educational materials on the ABC’s of nutrition. Barring that, all interested parties need to get on the same page by working to create one system that they can all support. That may be MyPyramid or one of the proprietary systems or an… Read more »
Anne Bieler
Anne Bieler
13 years 3 months ago

Retailers are trying to help interested consumers make healthier choices, some programs much better than others. While things have come along way since calling out things like cholesterol free potato chips, interpreting the nutrition information is difficult at many levels.

One approach that may be a step forward is to show that the retailer program identifies products with goals in mind, like no trans fats, amounts and types of fats, sodium levels, etc, that meet healthy eating guidelines. Some “natural” lines go the next step and promise no artificial flavors or colors, minimal preservatives, more whole grains, etc. There is a difference between directing consumers to foods that sensibly meet healthy eating guidelines, and making claims that foods are “healthy for you” based on meeting minimal levels of an ingredient. With MyPyramid as a guide, there is a lot of room for improvement.

Ralph Jacobson
13 years 3 months ago

There are many forces at work here, including the ones mentioned so far. Just one example of trying to get the word out to consumers on health/wellness/nutrition is Nestle’s Nutrition Institute. It has some great tools, like the Nutritional Compass, however it falls on mostly deaf consumer ears. Consumers must take responsibility for their own health.

The five-year-old Asheville, NC, Project has shown some great results from offering incentives to consumers (health rebate checks, etc.).

Too many models and metrics for monitoring health is confusing. Simple, concise and effective monitoring is best, but only as good as the consumer discipline to actually care about changing eating habits. Money talks, and maybe more CPGers should start programs to get people to take that responsibility upon themselves.

Odonna Mathews
Odonna Mathews
13 years 3 months ago
There is greater interest in health and nutrition by retailers and manufacturers than ever before. Everyone wants a piece of the pie. I, too, am concerned about the growing number of programs with their own criteria which often is not disclosed to consumers or health professionals. Consumers respond best to point-of-purchase programs which include simple health messages around the store, repeated in different ways, focusing on meal solutions. After all, that is what people eat! Although there is a lot of good information on MyPyramid, meal solutions are not there. And that’s why many retailers are looking to develop their own programs and build their own credibility, often using government standards or the credibility of universities or health organizations. Retailers are also interested in promoting their store brands, which are growing in popularity, and often feature wellness icons. There is work underway to develop a universal standard for these labeling programs, but retailers may not see it in their interest to support such an effort at this time. It seems to me that what we… Read more »
Max Goldberg
13 years 3 months ago

The myriad of nutrition rating programs is confusing consumers, and this is hurting our ability to steer people towards healthier diets. Consumers crave simplicity. This is true when considering the mind-numbing number of line extensions in almost every product category and in diet choices.

It benefits manufacturers and retailers to make up their own suggested guidelines, so that’s why they do it. But when a product that is loaded with sugar advertises itself as being healthy because one of its ingredients is milk, there is something wrong.

We need more common sense and simplicity from retailers and manufacturers.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
13 years 3 months ago

While I agree with Brian’s comments and concerns, it appears that many if not all of these proprietary nutrition programs are in response to consumer needs of a simplified, understandable, and easy to follow program. While Brian’s efforts the last 15 months have significantly improved the MyPyramid program, it does not appear to have significantly increased the use of MyPyramid. Perhaps the reasons are due to continued confusion on how to use the pyramid or not enough communications as to benefits and uses. In any event, the proprietary programs promise and deliver on simplicity.

In my opinion, we need a “gold standard” which is effective and efficient to use. Competing programs only add to consumer confusion and potential mis-use of the information provided by these programs. My suggestion is for the government and these proprietary programs to collaborate to develop a universal program, whether it is an improved MyPyramid or something else, that is easy to understand/use and results in long-term positive eating behavior and improved wellness.

Anne Howe
13 years 3 months ago

I completely agree with Max. Have you ever been in a store where shoppers are really trying to sort it out in the cereal or even the frozen dinner aisle? Try it one busy Saturday for an hour or so and just hang out and listen carefully.

The resounding takeaway is OMGWTF! Shoppers talking to each other frequently engage in brand bashing, but really, it’s a much higher-level issue that our industry needs to tackle.

I’m not generally a fan of defaulting to government, but when the private sector continues to fail….

Tonia Key
Tonia Key
13 years 3 months ago

The overwhelming majority of American shoppers don’t read labels. They don’t follow any food suggestions. They buy what they want to cook/eat, period.

Warren Thayer
13 years 3 months ago
Frustrating yes, but not new. When I was growing up, the government and the food industry told us to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, wash it down with whole milk, and have lots of red meat. Turns out, that was part ignorance and part hype. Seems like we’ve been fed a diet of ignorance and hype for decades, so that now, new and genuinely superior efforts are having a hard time finding traction. Coupled with the diet fads du jour, there’s chaos out there. It will be harder for manufacturers to be trusted with their own food pyramid efforts, because of at least the appearance of conflicts of interest. This is ripe for retailers, but IMHO you’re never going to get Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Kroger and everyone else agreeing on a universal food pyramid. And why should you? There are different opinions out there, and if I decide that I like Hannaford’s food star program best, that’s my free choice. I’ve been really encouraged to see so many good retailer programs out… Read more »
Jonathan Marek
13 years 3 months ago
First of all, the science of proper nutrition is very poor. There are shockingly few facts that are truly supported by science–e.g., too many calories are bad, vitamin deficiencies are bad, probably too much sugar is bad. Beyond that, there are poorly executed “studies” at best. Most are of the form “people who eat X live longer”–well, OK, but they self-selected into that group creating a bias that no regression technique can remove! So the basic underlying goals are poorly understood. Second, the goal of health activists is misplaced. Like spending decisions, people make diet decisions “on the margin.” Which is exactly what the official in the article above decries. Third, of course the food manufacturers are just trying to sell stuff. That’s their job. It is not their job to watch out for my health. That’s my job. If they want to try to convince me that there product is good for me, fine. But the facts on fat, sugar, calories, vitamins, etc, are right there on the label and I have the sole… Read more »
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
13 years 3 months ago

Does anyone worry about the Food pyramid past grade school? It may be a mom thing but other than that, the marketing of dieting methodologies, calorie counting, label reading and other women’s magazine-suggested behaviors kick in. MyPyramid needs Oprah to give it a boost. Short of that, I doubt it will get much attention from anyone but the pre-teen set.


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