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Changing the Conversation About Processed Foods

BY: James Baran
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by Mary Ellen Kuhn

As most members of the processed food industry would no doubt agree, the industry has a great story to tell but frequently is saddled with responding defensively to a steady stream of misperceptions and miscommunication about the role of processed foods in the American diet. In a session titled “Communicating the Contributions of Processed Foods and Addressing Public Perceptions” on Tuesday morning, July 20, at McCormick Place, four speakers shared their perspectives on the topic.

John Floros, Past President of IFT and Professor and Head of the Dept. of Food Science at Pennsylvania State University, set the stage for the discussion with presentation that highlighted key points from IFT’s recently released white paper, “Feeding the World Today and Tomorrow: The  Importance of Food Science & Technology.”

“Obesity is an epidemic today, but it’s not the only problem we’re facing,” said Floros. “People are looking for more diverse foods. Patterns of consumption are changing. Market conditions are growing. The population is growing, but our natural resources are very, very limited.”

Meanwhile, he pointed out, “There’s a lot of negative publicity about our food system, and particularly food science and technology. The white paper came about after an IFT task force was convened with the purpose of addressing the issue. The report begins with an historical perspective on of the food system, moves into an examination of the modern food system, and, in its concluding section, takes a look at technologies for the addressing future food supply needs,” Floros explained.

“The food system of tomorrow … needs to be science- and technology-based,” said Floros. In addition, he observed, it needs to be consumer driven, assure the health and wellness of consumers, preserve the environment and natural resources, and be sustainable.

Tom NagleThe session’s next speaker, Tom Nagle of Statler Nagle LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, offered a provocative prescription for improving the food industry’s image. It’s a mistake to simply respond defensively to the assault the industry endures from activists and media representatives, he contended. Instead the food industry should work to communicate a message that addresses consumers’ “higher-level” concerns, which tend to focus more generally on issues such as longevity/wellness and weight/health.

“So much of what the food industry is talking about is ‘here’s the way in which our food won’t hurt you,’” Nagle said. “We need to move ourselves up the benefit ladder to higher level benefits.”

A third speaker in the session, Victor Fulgoni, Senior Vice President of Nutrition Impact LLC, Battle Creek, Mich., presented an analysis of the contributions processed fruits and vegetables make to the diet based NHANES data from 2003 to 2006.

Processed fruits and vegetables provide about one-third of dietary fiber intake, one quarter of vitamin A, one half of vitamin C, and about 45% of potassium, Fulgoni said.

The final speaker in the session, David Schmidt, President and CEO of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), shared insights gleaned from some of the organization’s research projects. IFIC worked with a firm to come up with four positive messages about the food supply and found that after consumers were educated about these positive messages, their perceptions of processed foods were substantially more positive than prior to the educational initiative.

IFIC is working now on a communication tool kit designed to help disseminate positive messages about the food industry, Schmidt said.

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