Food & Nutrition Roundtable: Appetite for clarity

Consumers know they should eat healthier, but are they receiving mixed messages? Industry leaders joined Steve Barrett in Chicago for this roundtable.

Consumers know they should eat healthier, but are they receiving mixed messages? An eclectic group of industry leaders joined Steve Barrett in Chicago for this Porter Novelli-sponsored roundtable.

Steve Barrett (PRWeek): What should food companies be doing to tell their stories better and to help consumers change their behavior by eating healthier?

Christ-Erwin (Porter Novelli): I think we've got to put this into context much better. We have to look at what the industry has done. If you look back to the very first dietary guidelines in 1980 and you look at the supermarkets, and the restaurant industry, they have fundamentally changed. The product mix has changed, the fresh product has grown incrementally; everything has changed. Change happens gradually. I fundamentally believe what we've forgotten is people need incentives. Much more frequent incentives—and payoff.

Groziak (GolinHarris): Everyone is motivated differently—whether you're old or young; whether you're Hispanic or white or whatever. That's our biggest challenge: How do you individualize the message to motivate people to make a change?

Harris (Sara Lee): It's not about just getting the information out there. You've got to be able to hit so many different touchpoints and really connect with people not only with where they live but with where they hang out—where they live, where they play, where they shop, where they go to school. The messages need to be consistent, but the vehicles need to be expanded even further than they are today. Social media certainly has been and is a great tool to use—a medium for us to use to get the message out there in a major way. As we know, it's having quite an influence. We just have to make sure we're being accurate in what we're educating people about.

Squires (Powell Tate): I don't think the food industry has done a good job of telling their story and telling it well. I know it's easy to beat up the food industry, but I think we have to remember that some of the sharpest critics have their own agendas. It struck me as quite odd at a couple of meetings that I went to where the people actually stood up in the audience and apologized for working for the food industry. I thought, Wait a minute, where did we make the food industry into the enemy? I mean, there's a huge array of products we can now get to. I'm old enough to remember that you couldn't buy yogurt in the grocery store; you had to make it yourself. Same with tofu. How did that somehow get to be the bad thing? Why not celebrate what we've got, and see how we can make it even better?

Groziak (GolinHarris): My experience has been that companies try; people don't buy. So it's not if you make it that people will come. I think the retail environment is one of the most difficult, because shelf space is at a premium; and if that product doesn't turn, after a point in time, it gets de-listed. There are marketing and promotional efforts behind that. You can put out a very healthy whole grain product, but if consumers don't pull it off the shelf, it's going to get de-listed.

Harris (Sara Lee): Our nutrition people actually go out and hold nutrition seminars with our customers. We really take them through what's the reason why we're putting out this food, so they truly do understand it, and they understand the need that they'll be feeding for their customers.

Chef Bobo (Calhoun School): This is where I'm having a little problem with this discussion. Let me ask you this: Are you getting to the parents of the kids in the inner city who don't read this information? How are you going to get to them? We've been so successful as a country marketing junk food to kids. Why can't we use those same principles to talk about better food for kids? How do you get to them?

Barrett (PRWeek): Marianne?

Smith Edge (IFIC): I probably could say “amen” to everything that's already been said, but I think the reality is when we talk about the food industry, it's not just the food industry that created the issues. I think with all the education that's out there—our food and health surveys basically say consumers are confused.

Some of our other surveys talk about what the industry has done to help prevent some of the diseases. We know that because of the fortification of folic acid, we have done some very positive things to help prevent health issues. So we may have created some [health issues], but we've also been very proactive in preventing.

Christ-Erwin (Porter Novelli): I don't think they're confused at all about what they're supposed to eat. I mean, they parrot it back to you every time you ask: Eat more fruits and vegetables, eat more dairy. They know exactly. They're just not doing it. The other thing consumers have told us over and over is, “Stop with the math!” Every room I'm in—and we've all been in the same rooms—invariably, a PhD, a scientist or someone says, “It's just energy balance,” the epiphany happens, and everyone walks out of the room. Consumers don't understand this. They don't want to. Nobody knows how much they eat in calories a day.

Healthy Exchange

PRWeek editor-in-chief Steve Barrett led Jon Harris, SVP of global communications at Sara Lee, and the popular Chef Bobo (l) of the K-12 Calhoun School in New York City in a pre-roundtable Q&A. While the audience enjoyed a breakfast hosted by Porter Novelli and PRWeek, the trio discussed the growing trend toward improved nutrition for Americans.

Harris noted that food companies must play a role in providing healthy options. “You do your best to educate and empower, but ultimately it is up to the consumer to make the decision,” he said. “We continue to work with organizations like Common Threads and others to get the message out there and provide people with the necessary information to make their own choices.”

Chef Bobo, who caught the national media's attention with a unique menu at Calhoun, stressed the need for natural foods. “If it's processed,” he explained, “it's not as healthy.”

Porter Novelli partner and EVP Mary Christ-Erwin added, “We must stop the retread and the running in place and find the things that will engage, surprise, and delight our target audiences.”

Barrett (PRWeek): But isn't this messaging going to get even more complicated with all the different schemes and initiatives that are going on at the moment?

Harris (Sara Lee): Well the goal is to simplify. You need to make it as simple as possible, because it has been confusing to people. If we do our jobs right and we're working with the appropriate folks out there, we'll be able to do that. I think what we have to do also, though, is positive messaging on eating better and exercising more.

As I've mentioned earlier, we are part of the Healthy Weight Commitment, which is a group of about 160 restaurants, restaurant companies, food and beverage companies, and the like coming together to combat obesity and to come up with new fare and new healthier options. It's a commitment to a 1.5 trillion calorie reduction. We and many companies have promised to reduce sodium in products, which I think is critical. These are real actions that these companies are taking.

Also front-of-pack labeling is going to continue to be a very big initiative. I think to your point, Steve, that if we can get that right as an industry, that is going to help us tremendously. I think when we're talking about simplification, that's what it's really about.

Barrett (PRWeek): Yes, but Jon, Walmart is introducing their own scheme, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is working on their nutrition scheme; the FDA is supposed to be coming out with their official scheme. Where is this simplifying everything?

Chef Bobo (Calhoun): Everybody's scheming.

Smith Edge (IFIC): Through IFIC I actually directed the front-of-pack research behind the nutrition keys. The one thing about the nutrition keys—it's a scheme but it's really just transferring the information from the back panel onto the front. We did see that the more information—positive as well as those nutrients to reduce—the more that was on the front of the pack, the better the consumer was able to understand. We know that those who read labels are more highly educated. When we moved the label to the front of the pack, those with less educational levels had a better understanding and that was consistent across the board.

Barrett (PRWeek): So Linda, the kids in the families you're working with—and going back to the haves and have-nots and getting education—are they reading labels? Are the messages getting through to kids in those families?

Novick O'Keefe (Common Threads): We work in high-poverty areas where resources are scarce. Most of these neighborhoods are considered food deserts, so our families don't have a grocery store within on average, 5 or 6 miles of them. They're relying upon fringe stores, liquor stores, and fast food to sustain themselves. Our families, we've found, don't know anything. Many times these are single mothers that are working multiple jobs just to keep it together. These moms are just trying to feed their kids and make their kids smile. If this means giving their kid a bag of Cheetos and an orange soda and it makes their kids happy, they're going to do it.

I think the Dietary Plate, as far as I'm concerned, and I'm not a dietitian, is simplified and is a step in the right direction. It gives you a real mental image of what you should be eating every day, at every meal.

Squires (Powell Tate): In a way, the new labels are almost like the Cliff Notes of the nutrition labels. I don't even mind if there are five different ones, because at least people will start to look. What we're not addressing is what will people do when they go home?

Chef Bobo (Calhoun School): I have a higher income level of kids, and these kids don't know any more about family nutrition than your kids [Novick O'Keefe] except what we teach them. They have parents who know what they're eating, but those parents aren't home; they're working. The nanny doesn't know that nutrition. Our job is to try to train the parents on what's healthy and what's not.

Christ-Erwin (Porter Novelli): I agree with all these things discussed because of two things: One, two-thirds of parents and one-quarter kids are overweight. Who are we asking to be the role model? I also think parents look at health very holistically. Food and fitness is but a part of that. Nutrition is but a part of that. The last thing they want at dinner at the end of that workday is a food fight, so that's a role for stealth nutrition. I wish the industry could come up with a better moniker for that.

Skinner (ConAgra): People may not always like to hear from a corporation on the subject of nutrition. One of the things we've tried to do at ConAgra is set up forums to let parents or let the moms be the conduits to talk about nutrition and to put things in place and have people spark those conversations among themselves. That's a nice way to bridge that gap of who is the gatekeeper, because I think that's one of the biggest challenges for being oversized.

Harris (Sara Lee): Providing that access is so critical. You're truly connecting and enhancing that relationship. Social media has been fantastic for us—through Facebook, through Twitter, through our blogger efforts as well. Clearly more has to be done, but mom—for us in consumer packaged goods, that's who's making the decisions in homes—we really do have to reach and educate mom, and you're reaching mom at a time when she has so many other things going on right now, whether it be work or managing a household. You've got to make it simple and easy to understand.

Squires (Powell Tate): Dads and grandparents, too. I agree that mom is the person to reach, but I'm surprised at all the men I'm seeing who have babies and are doing the shopping and the cooking.

Barrett (PRWeek): So what is social media offering and helping to achieve that other media hasn't?

Skinner (ConAgra): The nice thing about social media is we learn a lot from observing these conversations. The other forms of media relations are kind of a one-way street where you see the message and it's out there. They can hear what you're doing and the nutritional benefits of a new product, but social media is creating forums for moms and bloggers, and we're keeping the comments coming into those, and we're learning a lot more. We see what consumers think about nutrition or what they want to see in products, and we build some real-time human research.

Harris (Sara Lee): That's what great about it: The real-time research. You are creating a stronger relationship with that consumer—stronger than you've ever had before. You become a resource, not just a company who's providing a brand, but a true resource—and a trusted resource.

Chef Bobo (Calhoun): I post my menu every day on Facebook and upload it to my blog. It connects me with parents.

Smith Edge (IFIC): It's a great way to get your information out and to monitor what's coming in and to learn a lot. But also—Jon, you said “trusted source,” and I think that's where it does get a little gray sometimes. Who is the trusted source? Because it's not just MD, RD, Chef who is the expert. It's whoever decides to write the next blog becomes the authority. We have mommy bloggers, which is great, but the fact is that there might be that continued quick response and communication of information that may not necessarily be totally accurate. Even though it provides us a great instant source, it can also provide a very instant “wow” or scare that's not realistic.

Harris (Sara Lee): It's a double-edged sword.

Smith Edge (IFIC): For those of us in communications it does give us some pause sometimes about how do we communicate in a way that provides the balance but also helps consumers understand what are the more trusted reliable sources.

Barrett (PRWeek): Is it the same problem, though, that social media is not necessarily getting into the poorer communities, or is there an opportunity, for example, with mobile phones? Are they prevalent?

Christ-Erwin (Porter Novelli): Hispanic teenagers are huge users in mobile communication.

Barrett (PRWeek): So what about computer access straight to mobile?

Novick O'Keefe (Common Threads): We have found that most of our families don't even own computers, so we haven't been able to post menus or a lot of resources on our site to be used for our families. Not to say it isn't a great media tool for us to tell our story to other stakeholders—our donors – but as far as reaching our families, it's not good.

Barrett (PRWeek): What about mobile phones?

Novick O'Keefe (Common Threads): We're looking at that and at texting recipes of the day to our families.

Barrett (PRWeek): What do you want to see from regulators? Should they be driving it, or is it up to corporations to take initiative?

Chef Bobo (Calhoun): I think regulation is important. I think it should be enforced. That's my problem with it. It would be nice if business could take it and run with it, but somehow, they tend to go overboard, which makes regulation necessary.

Harris (Sara Lee): In the ideal world, it would be a team effort. There are good reasons to have regulations, but I think it's critical that the regulators in industry work closely together and move the needle forward with measurable outcomes and make the necessary improvements. There are examples where businesses can lead. As an industry, we've made great strides.

Chef Bobo (Calhoun): I think My Plate is an example of collaboration.

Christ-Erwin (Porter Novelli): Regulation is a very specific thing, like legislation is a very specific thing. There are very clear definitions as to what that is. Regulate what to what end? Where are the analytics and the evaluation mechanism? Certainly public health programs are not regulations, but let's throw it out there; we're going to educate to what end; how are the dollars being used? Regulation is to what end? I think we need to be more thoughtful about what it is we are recommending and how we will know it's successful...because at the end of the day these are an enormous investment of time, and on the other side, this is an enormous investment in the loss of dollars.

Squires (Powell Tate): I also think it becomes, “Is there national regulation?” “Is there city regulation?” “Is there state regulation?” I've heard a number of CEOs say, “We'll do it. Just tell us where the bar is, and keep it there.” So don't have it as here's one bar, and this place says here's another bar.

Groziak (GolinHarris): We need rewards and subsidies versus the punitive. There is research coming out that says that is going to drive more positive behavior than taxation or being punitive.

Barrett (PRWeek): What about the portion control issue? It struck me coming over here from England. In the US, the sandwich has 10 slices of meat. Where did that come from? Why is it necessary to have a sandwich that big?

Chef Bobo (Calhoun School): We make a delicious Reuben Sandwich for lunch occasionally. Sometimes we even do it with corned beef - one slice of corned beef. But do you know what our favorite Reuben is? Portobello mushroom Reuben. It has Swiss cheese, it's got sauerkraut, it's got Russian dressing—everything. If you offer the kid the choice there, they'll take the Portobello Reuben.

Smith Edge (IFIC): Last fall, when we were doing those focus groups, we asked about portion control because we did some messaging. To parents we said, “How do you perceive portion control?” One of them said, “A serving size is what's on the back of a package or a can. A portion size is what I eat when a restaurant serves me or I eat until I am full.” There is that disconnect.

Squires (Powell Tate): I think it originally had to do with value.

Harris (Sara Lee) : More equals better value. It's more for my dollar; more bang for the buck.

Squires (Powell Tate): The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has wonderful interactive quizzes that will show you through 20 years how the portion sizes have changed, but I think we're moving in a better direction right now. There have been companies that have said, “We really will train consumers that smaller is better.”

Christ-Erwin (Porter Novelli): I would love to see the My Plate, whatever the USDA decides to do with it, have an interactive piece, have a plate proxy. We don't handle plates a lot. What does it look like in a bowl? What does it look like in a snack? That proportionality and how you build it, so I'd love to see the plate proxy that morphs and takes shape because, quite honestly, lots of people don't eat on plates all the time, even dinner.

Novick O'Keefe (Common Threads): We've done a lot of third-party evaluating studies with University of Illinois-Chicago and we're about to undertake another one with University of Chicago. We're really learning that in our 10-week program that these 8- to 12-year-old kids go through—you hear these kids being able to talk about the plate and portion control. It's about reversing this trend of generations of non-cookers. It's about making the family meal a priority for all socioeconomic levels. From the food networks, cooking has become really sexy.

Christ-Erwin (Porter Novelli): I enjoy cooking, but the last thing I want to do when I get home at 8 is to start hauling out the pots and pans.

Novick O'Keefe (Common Threads): I just wonder about the role media can play. So many kids right now are going home after school and playing video games or watching TV. Why can't there be more shows on TV teaching kids how to make healthy snacks and meals? That's when you see a lot more fast food commercials; you see a lot of packaged food commercials. It is a free world and a free market and people can choose, but I think there are also public service announcements and TV shows that could happen during that time to educate and be a little more proactive about healthy eating.

Harris (Sara Lee): They're also using technology to get them up and moving. I think the Wii has done a terrific job. So has Kinect.

Christ-Erwin (Porter Novelli): That's what has to be on the table. Think about the best brainstorms and focus groups. Everything in the middle of the table and start deconstructing and putting things back together to get best practices.

Squires (Powell Tate): We've been focusing on food. I know I've heard consumer advocates and people in government say the food industry should stay in their lane and not get into exercise. But I think that's wrong. We have absolutely engineered activity out of our lives. Think about ourselves. When is the last time you changed the channel by going up and touching the TV? When did you roll down a window in your car? We've got to figure out ways to raise that activity level, and I think the food industry as well as everybody else deserves to be at that table.

Skinner (ConAgra): To your point about getting up and changing the channel, I think people don't realize that a little bit goes a long way. The other nice thing is those are the things that have no socioeconomic boundaries. It doesn't cost anything to go out for a half-hour jog.

Barrett (PRWeek): As communicators, can you summarize what you think the top priorities should be for advancing these agendas, while still meeting the mission of the corporation or the organization for which we work?

Chef Bobo (Calhoun): I think I've learned a lot about we're not enemies. I think we both have a lot to learn from each other and the more that we have this time, the better understanding we'll have and the better off the consumer is going to be.

Harris (Sara Lee): I would like to see us simplify the messaging and get it out there more, increase our education efforts as best we can, but make sure that there are measurable goals in place to make sure we are working toward an end. What do we want this picture to look like when we're done? As long as we're starting with an end in mind, I think that's how we'll be successful.

Smith Edge (IFIC): I think it's consistency in messaging and getting everyone on the same page. A lot of times to the consumer, there seems to be a lot of conflict on what's right and what's wrong. So, how can we all get on the same page, talk about some simple messages, and understand that probably the messages we've been communicating are not working? If we can come to that agreement and are willing to peel the onion and say, “OK, what will get through to consumers and be positive?” I think we can move forward and really achieve some outcomes.

I'm concerned that we have thrown a lot of dollars toward this program over the past few years and really haven't been able to see some outcomes. That's what we've got to say: What will actually work to move the needle?

Harris (Sara Lee): That's what Elvis Costello calls the deep, dark, truthful mirror. We've spent a lot of time looking around for people to blame and groups to blame. The truth is, rather than vilify someone or a group, or industry, we know it's a shared responsibility. Let's share the responsibility and the accountability and let's work together toward a solution.

Squires (Powell Tate): I agree with everyone that the messages have to be better. I'd like us to find more positive ways to encourage people to do these things, and maybe make it a cool thing just as we were able to change society very much in terms of smoking. We didn't get into this fix overnight; we're not going to get out of it overnight. It's little things and moving in the right direction that's the most important thing.

Christ-Erwin (Porter Novelli): I truly believe that what we want to do is engage and entertain and educate, but at the end of that cycle, galvanize, mobilize, activate. Really what's changed is the food supply, and I think we spent too much time worrying about consumers' behavior.

I think that best practices of the nation, combined with the research that we really need to do to get at building the right messages, programs, and then on the back end, evaluation. This is all an investment. What are we trying to do? How can we best do it? And how do we measure it so that it is replicable?

Skinner (ConAgra): We're big believers in listening as much as we do talking. So from a consumer packaged food company standpoint, we want to know from our consumers: What does healthy mean to you? I think we mentioned earlier in the breakfast session that that phrase “healthy” was very vague—what does that mean? But hearing from consumers what that means to them and where their struggles are and why it is difficult for them to get a healthy meal in front of their kids and where can we provide products or reformulate products or do whatever we need to do to meet their needs is important to us. Not just spreading the message, but hearing from the people who buy our products.

Novick O'Keefe (Common Threads): I think that our ties to food are complex, and they're cultural. They even are familial. There's a quote about food that it is really a reflection of who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. We need to find really creative solutions respecting those ties that people can really engage and identify and connect with to really address some of these issues.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in