A reflection on FNCE 2018.
When the new members of the 116th Congress are sworn in, a divided government will return to Washington – a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.
A divided government can mean gridlock and partisan clashing, but it could be an opportunity for checks and balances, something which could benefit our political process and the nutrition landscape alike. This could be a win for constituencies and stakeholders who must translate policy into action.
In today’s polarized climate, there is a perception that legislation is “good” or “bad,” depending on your political affiliation and which party sponsored the bill. Unfortunately, the “good” versus “bad” sentiment isn’t limited to the halls of Congress. In fact, a similar division was on display slightly north of Capitol Hill just a few weeks ago at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ annual Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE®), where more than 13,000 food and nutrition professionals came to Washington, D.C. to hear and taste the latest food trends.
Walking the FNCE® expo hall, many foods were marketed as “good” or derided as “bad.” High-protein, keto, and plant-based foods were deemed good. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), non-organic and food with high FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols) were considered “bad,” or at least had little place at FNCE®.
The bottom line is this: polarization isn’t helping Congress pass polices and it’s not helping people understand their food and nutrition decisions either. It is high time we come to grips with the fact that polar ends of the values spectrum – whether they apply to policy or nutrition guidance – aren’t helpful when it comes to everyday application.
What Porter Novelli Has Found
Applying stark “good” and “bad” labels to foods doesn’t help consumers attain better diets, and in fact, can create confusion and mistrust. There is a wide swath of middle ground that allows consumers to choose based on individual needs and preferences. Saying that all foods can fit (even those indulgences!) in a balanced diet isn’t earthshattering counsel, but the truth is there is neither magic nor evil in any given food – it’s about developing healthy patterns that also embrace the enjoyment of eating.
In recent months, Porter Novelli has been conducting surveys to better understand how consumers perceive key food and nutrition topics, such as GMOs and CRISPR, and the way foods are classified as “healthy” or “natural.”
Porter Novelli has been focusing research on moms through its novel MomTalk platform which provides mothers, a valuable consumer group, an opportunity to share their opinions about health and wellness to deliver timely insights about shopping practices. The findings reveal deep insecurity about the healthfulness and naturalness of the foods that people are purchasing for their family, concerns about the cost required for healthful eating, and profound negativity toward GMOs. While this research panel focused on moms, who are the CEOs of the household, it’s safe to say most grocery shoppers share their confusion.
People are not confident about what is really “healthy” or “natural,” despite all this labeling. Sixty-two percent of consumer moms say they are sometimes unsure if products are healthy and 63% say that they are sometimes unsure if foods are natural.
The comments underscored the lack of confidence consumers feel. One mom said that shopping for healthy food “is like navigating a minefield because you can never tell if the next step or product is safe” and another said trying to pick healthy foods is “like torture, because everything is labeled ‘healthy’ but not much actually is.”
Cost is a major concern too, with a widespread perception that healthy diets are expensive diets – as one mom said: “it takes my breath away thinking of the price.”
One clear lesson emerges from this research: overly simplistic labeling of “good,” “healthy,” and “natural” is leading to confusion among many shoppers, not clarity. While labeling is an important marketing tool for the food industry, education is another. Unfortunately, too much of this labeling is contradicting nutrition science. The belief that there are no bad foods, only bad diets is a common-sense middle-ground emphasis that is being lost in all the efforts to label some foods good and some foods bad.
Opportunities for Nutrition Policy
The 116th Congress and the Administration will have a handful of major opportunities to shape nutrition policy for the next several years.
The new Congress will inherit the 2018 farm bill if it is not passed during the lame duck session. The farm bill is an important piece of legislation that is a vehicle to deliver nutrition assistance programs to millions of low-income individuals and families.
And in 2019, one of the biggest nutrition policy developments will be the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americas (DGA). Updated every five years, the DGA is the foundation of federal food and nutrition education programs, and it shapes consumers behaviors and eating patterns. By early next year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services will appoint the DGA Advisory Committee, which will develop a scientific report on nutrition and health from birth to older adults.
Porter Novelli understands how important nutrition frameworks are for consumers and nutrition policies – we are the ones that created and revised the Food Pyramid. We also understand that now is not the time to label Congress or food “good” or “bad.” Instead, Congress, and the nutrition and food communities, should work together and to promote moderation and consensus. Let’s hope we see this moderation and consensus on Capitol Hill and on the FNCE® expo floor in 2019.