Food Label Fatigue

By Kelly Visser, Iowa Food & Family Project

Eight in 10 Iowans find food labels misleading, according to the Iowa Food & Family Project’s (Iowa FFP) annual Consumer Pulse Survey conducted among households’ primary food purchasers. This, along with 55 percent reporting label attributes like “organic” or “all natural” have little to no influence on their purchasing decisions, shows Iowa grocery shoppers may be growing numb to the product packaging in their cart.

“It appears that shoppers are becoming increasingly indifferent to the flashy claims food marketers are using, especially those rooted in misinformation,” says Aaron Putze, Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) director of communications and external relations. “Twenty-two percent said they don’t seek out information on food labels at all.”

Now in its seventh year, the annual survey takes pulse of Iowans’ food purchasing habits, including label influence and attitudes toward farming. Year-over-year findings help shape Iowa FFP’s programming and content development.

The November 2018 survey had 676 responses — the most in the survey’s history — 295 were engaged with Iowa FFP as monthly newsletter subscribers and 381 were non-subscribers. Respondents’ age groups, income levels, education levels and geographic regions closely follow the state’s population, resulting in a low margin of error of 3.79 percent.

Blue Compass, a digital marketing agency in West Des Moines, conducted the survey analysis from data collected through Research Now’s business-to-consumer panel.

Label Lineup

According to the survey, three in four respondents seek information on food labels, but the intensity with which food labels influence purchase behavior wasn’t as evident as in previous years. Overall, nutrition and ingredients were the most influential parts of food labels with 24 percent selecting each as “extremely influential.”

In looking at specific label attributes, more than half of more of respondents say the following attributes have no effect on purchase decisions:

  • 50 percent report “hormone-free” labels have no effect on purchase
  • 53 percent report “antibiotic-free” labels have no effect on purchase
  • 53 percent report “organic” labels have no effect on purchase
  • 58 percent report “non-GMO” labels have no effect on purchase

“The number of ‘organic’ or ‘non-GMO’ labels in grocery stores makes it seem that those are the only products consumers want,” says Shannon Latham, vice president of Latham Hi-Tech Seeds – one of Iowa FFP’s 35 partner organizations. “It’s interesting to see many of these labels aren’t resonating as strongly with Iowa consumers.”

Non-GMO labels appear on virtually everything from water to tomatoes to chicken. Oftentimes, there aren’t GMO counterparts to a product, so adding a non-GMO label is not only confusing but it’s also misleading.

Food quality is the most important factor to Iowans when they’re grocery shopping with 58 percent rating it as “most important.” This was followed by price, nutritional value, ease of preparation, sustainability, where/how it was grown and raised, and compliance with diet, respectively. Among these influencers, price of food was the only factor to show an increase in “most important” ratings from 2017, up 4 percent.

Shopping and Mealtime Routines

Even with the buzz around online shopping and meal delivery services, 95 percent of respondents indicate they primarily grocery shop in store.

Hy-Vee continues to be the grocery store of choice for 42 percent of Iowans, followed by 21 percent choosing Fareway and 21 percent selecting Walmart/Sam’s Club. Market share for both Hy-Vee and Fareway is consistent with 2017 results, whereas Walmart had a 4 percent increase.

Seven in 10 Iowans say they spend their free time cooking or baking. In looking at a typical week’s dinnertime habits, 86 percent prepare a meal from scratch, 54 percent prepare a pre-made meal (frozen, short cuts, leftovers) and 37 percent eat at a sit-down restaurant. 

From Fridge to Farm

To measure the thought Iowans put into their grocery shopping, they’re asked how strongly they agree with a series of statements. The survey found that more than half of Iowans think about how their food was grown and raised, 65 percent said they are knowledgeable about agriculture and 78 percent report being satisfied with Iowa agriculture.

For Randy Miller, a soybean, corn and pig farmer from Lacona and Iowa Soybean Association director, the findings are encouraging. “So often we only hear the loudest, most negative voices,” Miller says. “The reality is — when we share information about what farmers are doing and how they are doing it — perceptions are positive.”

Tracy Leith, an Urbandale resident and active member of the Iowa FFP Champions Program, agrees. “Sometimes consumers hear that farmers care most about their bottom line. But speaking with farmers and seeing their operations during Iowa FFP tours make it clear that protecting their land and caring for their livestock are the top priorities.”

Iowa FFP subscribers were significantly more likely than non-subscribers to be “very satisfied” with Iowa agriculture, 47 versus 36 percent, respectively.

The survey included a series of questions about farmer performance, asking if farmers are on the right or wrong track with water quality, caring what consumers think, building strong communities, animal housing, providing safe foods and biotechnology.

Overall, respondents feel farmers are on the right track with those issues measured. Nine out of 10 believe farmers are on track with building strong communities and providing safe foods.

Survey respondents were also asked to share opinions about where improvements can be made in food production. Thirty percent of respondents referenced water quality.

While improvement is always needed, Miller says the finding underscores the need for farmers to be specific when talking about the progress being made to improve soil and water health.

“As farmers, it’s on us to get out and share our stories. It makes a difference in consumer attitudes. We need to continue building two-way conversations between farmers and consumers and learn where the focus is when it comes to what consumers care about,” Miller says.

Continuing the Conversation

Forty-four percent of Iowans reported being familiar with Iowa FFP, a nine percent increase from 2016. Ten percent reported being “very familiar” in 2018, an eight percent increase from 2016.

The ag awareness initiative reaches nearly 120,000 followers each month through its newsletter, website and social media channels. This is roughly equivalent to the combined populations of Altoona, Cedar Falls and Dubuque.

Iowa FFP invites Iowans to explore how food is grown around the state and meet the farmers who make it happen; 24/7, 365 days a year. Through these activities, it aims to empower consumers to make food choices based on facts – not fear. The initiative works with a collaborative network of more than 35 food, farming and healthy living organizations who are proud of Iowa’s homegrown foods and hometown values.