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What’s the buzz? Words that matter to consumers

July 18, 2018

GMO and Non-GMO

Words matter. It’s true in life, and it’s also true when it comes to food packaging and marketing. Presenters in an IFT18 session titled “Buzzwords Used in Food Labeling and Advertising: Maximizing Success and Minimizing Risk” explored the impact of terms such as natural, non-GMO, and organic in presentations on Wednesday morning.  

Kathy Musa-Veloso, director of health claims and the clinical trials group at scientific and regulatory consultancy Intertek, started the session by sharing findings from a series of research studies related to the use of buzzwords on food and beverage packaging.  

Consumers tend to have perceptions about buzzwords that are not based on reality, Musa-Veloso explained. For example, she cited a 2018 study by the International Food Information Council in which more than a third of consumers (37%) said they know nothing at all or very little about genetically modified (GM) foods, but nearly half (47%) of those surveyed said they tried to avoid GM foods entirely or somewhat. Of those avoiders, 85% had human health concerns and 41% had environmental concerns.  

Other research Musa-Veloso cited illustrated that consumers were willing to pay more for a bioengineered product when it included a claim related to being natural or sustainable. So it’s clear, she observed, that buzzwords such as these affect purchase intent. “Foods labeled as natural, no-fat, low-fat, or non-GMO are perceived to be healthier, safer, and more environmentally friendly than foods that are genetically modified,” she added.  

Martin Hahn, a food regulatory attorney with Hogan & Lovells US LLP, discussed the legal ramifications of using some of the currently popular buzzwords in food marketing and advertising.  

“There are a great deal of unknowns with respect to these buzzwords because we’re not dealing with clear regulations,” he said, underscoring the fact that terms such as natural have not been officially defined by regulatory agencies. We’re not even dealing with common sense in most cases,” Hahn continued. “We’re dealing with the whims of class-action lawyers." 

“Today, much of my job is tracking the class-action lawsuits because that’s where food companies have vulnerability, he said. “Natural continues to be a hotbed of litigation,” he added, noting that hundreds of legal challenges to the use of the word natural on packaging and in marketing have been filed, and many are pending. Products that make natural claims and that contain GM ingredients, synthetic ingredients, oils refined with hexane, or pesticide residues or products that are more than minimally processed and labeled as natural are all frequent targets, he said. 

“We’re not going to change the dialogue on natural because consumers seem to think that natural is very important,” Hahn said. “What I can tell you is that if you are crazy enough to put a natural claim on a product made with GMOs, you will be sued.” 

Given the current reality, Hahn advised food marketers to “be smart” and proceed with caution before making a labeling or marketing claim using a term that’s been frequently challenged in a class-action lawsuit. And companies that do decide to make such a claim should conduct a careful cost-benefit analysis to gauge whether making the claim is worth the risk and expense of a potential legal challenge, he emphasized.