Truth In Labeling

Volume 134, No. 11  - Friday, September 11, 2009

With a new discussion starting about changes to the nutrition panel, it is time to speak up. The problem is one of communication. What does the panel communicate to consumers?

So a consumer says to me, wow, this cheese is so full of fat, shouldn’t I be eating soy cheese? They don’t know they can eat natural cheese regularly, as long as they balance their diets as the AIWF and Harvard suggest, over a few days. This is the root which allows the information provided to be misunderstood.

There is no replacement for an educated populace, or as my dad used to say, you can’t legislate common sense. The implication is that a way has to be found to provide a context to the public.

Rather than see the dangers in the shadows, as we did when consumer groups first began demanding nutrition info, let’s pretend it is a marketing tool. We must use it anyways, and there is always the chance that some input that needs to get to the right ears in Washington, will, if we discuss it.

A study released by the IFIC as reported in the July 30 edition of Supermarket News has some suggestions, but to be frank, though they are accurate, they are kind of wimpy. If the goal is to help people make better decisions about what they eat. In this case we may need to blame the messenger and not the message
Let’s be frank, the “panel” has hurt the sales of cheese. There is no way to avoid the fact that natural cheese has fat. By using the calories to fat ratio and confusing references to the number of calories in a diet at the bottom of the panel, consumers have been misled into thinking it is not healthy to eat cheese.

This, as you should know, is not true, or do you? In fact, for many people, the opposite is true: not eating cheese or fermented dairly products is a bad idea for women and others at risk for osteoporosis, for one thing.

We produce and sell one of the most accessible sources of calcium, and one of the most nutrition packed calories, which in a restricted calorie diet is important. Scientists from the schools of public health at Harvard and other universities, the American Institute of Wine and Food, many registered dietitians, and plain common sense is that what matters most is balancing your diet overall, over a few days, not in one particular food, or one meal.

The way the label is written encourages wrong thinking, even if factually accurate.

It is in the way it is presented. Life promoting lack of detail is better than accuracy that hurts. In the search for pinpoint accuracy, the goal has been lost: look around you, our society simply doesn’t know how to eat.

Shouldn’t the goal be to help people make better food choices? Oh, and aren’t cheese and fermented food products good choices? Haven’t they been good choices since the beginning of civilization?

I am not addressing highly processed cheese foods here, nor milk itself, from nothing more than prejudice; on the one hand I tend to buy fresh, unprocessed foods; and on the other, I am lactose intolerant and will never forgive nature for taking ice cream from me. Those of you in those industries, forgive me, if you feel my thoughts apply to you as well, read on, otherwise, read the next article.

So what is to blame for the problem with the label? First of all, us! We were shortsighted and defensive. We did not voluntarily provide the information to consumers from the get-go, as part of a strategy devoted to valuing and respecting consumers, their wants, needs and desires. We went stubborn, leaving it to the government to write the rules, rarely a good thing.

Why didn’t we provide it? We were afraid, I think. Afraid if the consumer knew about all the fat in cheese and fmp’s they would stop buying, instead of visualizing a world where consumers not only had data but also had the context in which to put that data.

If we had, we could have hit them up front with the facts, and then massaged them with how to understand them: balance your diet over a few days; eat more powerpacked calories like cheese so you can eat less and lose weight, etc.

We could have designed the panels ourselves, made them make more sense, make them fun, make them clear, make them do their job and let people know CHEESE IS GOOD! (Certainly better than greed.)

The IFIC report recommends moving the fat to calorie ratio to the main panel, thank you, and putting some high falutin’ government agency at the top, so people trust more, among other things. Does anyone respect government anymore? Not if you listen to the news, something I try to avoid.

For me, I expect they would trust the “panel” more if they could understand and use it correctly. Instead of an agency name, how about: “Balance your diet over a few days, eat a wide variety of nutritional foods.”

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at You can visit and blog with Dan at


Other Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter

dot This Too Shall Pass or "What were we thinking?"
dot Marketing Language That Resonates
dot When Will We Ever Learn?
dot Cheese Competitions In The Context Of Marketing

dot Economy
dot Even The Best Laid Plans Go Astray
dot Root Causes: Communication
dot Partners
dot Diamond Cutting:
It's What You Don't Know That Can Hurt You
dot Integrity and Ethics
dot Pricing:  The Perceived Value
Designing the Effective Sell Sheet
Common Sense
It All Begins in The Mouth
Of Cars...

The Gathering Storm
As Our Industry Evolves, So Should Our Terminology:

Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
Visit John Umhoefer
Visit Neville McNaughton

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