Q&A: Why Americans Ignore The Food Pyramid


Ever since the U.S. government introduced the Food Pyramid back in 1992, marketers have been trying hard to get consumers to pay attention. The latest version of the Pyramid was unveiled earlier this year, but the situation looks bleak.

First, we're still fat: two-thirds of American adults are either overweight or obese. And we're still clueless: Despite the billions spent touting a food's protein, carbs, fiber or fat grams (not to manage disparaging trans fats or defending high-fructose corn syrup), most shoppers still have very little idea of what they should be eating.

Melissa Abbott, director of culinary insights for the Hartman Group, a market research company in Seattle, spends her days watching what food consumers buy in stores and how they prepare and eat it at home. She explains to Marketing Daily how so much noise could make so little impact.



Q: So the new Pyramid tweaked some previous recommendations. How are consumers reacting?

A: They're just not aware of it. By and large, consumers do not look to the government as a source of information on how they should be eating.

Q: So it has no impact?

A: In our research, none, or very little. But it does impact food marketers. Take whole grains. Consumers know what they know because of company product claims that came out of the changes in 2005, not the government recommendations themselves. Nobody eats in the style of the pyramid, and it represents very little of how Americans see food.

Q: So who do they listen to?

A: Their social networks. Everyone seems to have that one friend who is talking about organic, acai or gluten free -- and they're thinking about what she says to do.

Q: So what about her -- the one we all rely on to stay up to date?

A: She's exhausted! It's hard work, and she is probably quite limited -- she may know a lot about fats, but not much else. It's not likely that the same person who is thinking all the time about how fish helps your heart (although increasingly, those health concerns lead consumers to environmental concerns) is the same person who is worried about how much of the world's water it takes to raise asparagus.

Q: Who else do consumers believe?

A: Dr. Oz. Oprah. We hear that constantly, "I gave up this food because Oprah says she is doing a detox..."

Q: Where are the biggest gaps in consumer knowledge?

A: They may be paying attention to an issue, but usually have no sense of real recommendations. Everyone knows they should be eating more fiber, for example, but no one knows how much is enough.

Q: How else do consumers learn?

A: Label reading. I've been doing this for 19 years, and people are definitely much more into labels. But they scan it looking for very specific things -- maybe calories, or fat grams, or checking for high-fructose corn syrup. Very few know how to really take in all that information.

Q: Many retailers, including Whole Foods markets, Hannaford's, and Hy-Vee, have invested a lot of money on instore marketing efforts to better educate consumers. Wal-Mart has announced a big initiative to create their own front-of-package label criteria. Are these effective?

A: No. Our data shows they are not changing the path to purchase much at all, and I think it will eventually lead to greater consumer confusion, not less.

Q: Why?

A: Nutritional information is very subjective. And we're so focused on the components, and whether an ingredient is good or bad. So all trans fats are supposed to be bad, but now we are learning that perhaps coconut oil -- which is solid at room temperature -- might be good for us.  Real butter may be a better choice than margarine. Agave was the Holy Grail for a while, now it's not.

Q: What should marketers do?

A: Focus on the whole food, not just the ingredients. Focus on the people behind the product -- the farmers, the growers. The movement is toward real food, not synthetics. (That's why supplement use is declining.) Brands that can highlight that will do well. It's about conveying the idea that the food you sell is authentic. Create a narrative that explains that.


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