What people really, really want - or look for - on pack

By Ailbhe Fallon

- Last updated on GMT

Levels of concern about food additives vary on how questions are posed
Levels of concern about food additives vary on how questions are posed

Related tags Sugar substitute

Sir,Ask anyone whether they’d prefer food made from ‘natural’ or ‘artificial’ ingredients and the results will always favour the natural option (see article 'Demand for naturally-sweet rises', Food Manufacture, October 2014, p21).

This is not surprising; for decades, the food industry has focused on telling consumers what’s not in food rather than celebrating what is actually in it.

However, when it comes to market research, the devil is in the detail – that detail being the wording of the questions asked, and the reporting that takes into account not only the headline result that makes the desired point, but also the neutral answers for those who don’t have a view and may not even know the answer to the question!


For example, in May 2014, when [market research firm] TNS [for the Food Standards Agency (FSA)] asked people what food issues concerned them, 53% said ‘none’ and 7% said ‘don’t know’. Just 6% mentioned the use of additives spontaneously.

When then asked whether they were concerned about ‘the use of additives – such as preservatives and colouring – in food products’, the number claiming to be concerned jumped to 28%.

Similarly, if you ask people who buy/consume soft drinks at least weekly what they look for on pack (when they see a new soft drink product – surely the only time they are likely to examine the label), 24% will claim to look for sugar content and 11% ‘sugar-free’, just 4% mention additives and six people (from a soft drinks survey sample of more than 700 in July 2013) mention aspartame.

Ask them what they look for when they see a new soft drink for their children, and the figures are 48% (of parents) claiming to look at sugar content, 24% sugar-free, 12% additives, 7% calories, 1% artificial sweeteners, and just one person claiming to look out for aspartame or saccharin.


At a time when the food industry is being challenged to play its role in tackling the public health consequences of consuming an excess of calories over energy expenditure, reformulation for so-called ‘clean-label’ alone is a distraction.

Of course, there are people who would prefer their food made from store-cupboard ingredients – and they should have that choice – but scaremongering about food and food ingredients – including for marketing purposes – does the industry and ultimately consumers a dis-service.

Ailbhe Fallon

Fallon Currie Consulting

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