Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter

 

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The Consumer As A Hypocrite

Kevin Anderson, team leader consumer insights, Schreiber Foods, made an interesting observation at the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association’s 2015 Dairy Symposium in Egg Harbor, WI, this week: that consumers are all “hypocrites.”

And that makes it more than a bit difficult when trying to market dairy products, or anything else, for that matter, to consumers.

The example Anderson cited was reduced-sodium foods. Yes, consumers express an interest in consuming these foods; after all, they’ve been told for years that they should reduce their sodium intake.

But consumers aren’t actually buying reduced-sodium foods, Anderson noted. The reason: these foods don’t taste all that great.

At first glance, reduced-sodium foods have had one of the greatest marketing advantages in the history of food marketing. After all, organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest have been pushing the federal government to crack down on the alleged high sodium content in various foods, including cheese, since the 1970s.

And the federal government has been advocating a lower-sodium diet since at least 1980, when one of the seven recommendations in the first edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was: “Avoid too much sodium.”

The federal government’s 1980 recommendations on how to avoid too much sodium seem, well, they seem kind of ridiculous today. For example, one piece of advice is to cook with only small amounts of added salt. This was obviously before the proliferation of cooking shows on TV, where seemingly every recipe includes at least an added dash, and sometimes a bit more, of salt.

Another ridiculous piece of sodium avoidance advice: limit intake of salty foods, such as potato chips, pretzels, salted nuts and of course cheese. The problem with that broad advice is that salt is used in the cheesemaking process for a variety of reasons, including flavor as well as texture and shelf life, among others.

Lumping cheese in with potato chips, many of which were still made with the soon-to-be-banned partially hydrogenated vegetable oils back in 1980, was ludicrous back then and is even more ludicrous today.

Despite the decades-long “promotion” of reduced-sodium foods by the federal government, CSPI and others, these products have never really taken off in the marketplace.

Why is that? As Schreiber’s Anderson noted, these foods just don’t taste as good as foods with what might be called the usual level of sodium.

And therein lies the dilemma for today’s dairy and food product marketers. Actually, it’s at least three dilemmas, none of which are pleasant for food companies.

The first is trying to develop and market products that both adhere, at least somewhat, to the latest nutrition advice from the federal government and others, such as CSPI. So since 1980, that has meant trying to remove at least some of the saturated fat, dietary cholesterol and sodium from cheese and other dairy products.

The result of that effort has been two-fold: quite a few mediocre to downright lousy products that could claim “better-for-you” status but worse-for-you flavor; and less-than-stellar sales, due primarily to a lack of flavor but also due to problems such as rubbery texture, lack of meltability and shorter shelf life.

Another dilemma is trying to determine how much staying power the latest government advice has, and for how long it will remain important to consumers (if it ever becomes important).

For example, as we’ve noted previously in this space, the federal government’s dietary advice since at least 1980 has included the recommendation to avoid dietary cholesterol. But in its report released earlier this year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee basically said: never mind that advice.

Actually, what the DGAC said is that dietary cholesterol is no longer a nutrient of concern. This puts an interesting perspective on the efforts, over the past three-plus decades, to develop and market cholesterol-free or cholesterol-reduced dairy products.

A third, related dilemma is trying to figure out what concerns will stick with consumers the most, and have the greatest impact on food sales. For example, gluten-free is pretty hot right now, but will it still be hot in, say, two or three years?

Consumers are also very interested in protein, which is why food marketers are adding extra protein to everything from yogurt to granola bars. But will this consumer interest in protein remain strong in, say, five years? And if not, what will happen to all the high-protein products that have been developed in recent years?

The answer to that last question is pretty simple, if those high-protein foods and beverages taste good. They will remain successful no matter which consumer trends are hot, and which are not, if they deliver the one thing consumers will always be most interested in: taste.

Yes, good old taste has always ranked first when consumers decide which foods and beverages to buy, and which not to buy, and it will remain first for a long, long time. Dairy product marketers can add protein and other preferred nutrients, and remove salt, fat and other disliked nutrients, but if the resulting products don’t taste good, they will fail in the marketplace.

In a nutshell, it seems that successful dairy marketers should continue to give consumers what they want — products that taste good — and not pay all that much attention to what the hypocrites say they want. DG


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