Convention Report: Health And Nutrition Issues Confuse Consumers; Rising Cost Brings Yet Another Factor

Dec. 4, 2008
Concerns bearing on consumers during the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA) government affairs symposium

If you’ve been trying to keep up with consumer attitudes about food, health and nutrition, chances are you’re fairly confused. You’re not alone. Consumers in general are highly confused, thanks to mixed messages they’re getting about nutrition from the media and a renewed concern about product costs.

Sylvia Rowe, an author on food and nutrition, attempted to clarify the various concerns bearing on consumers during the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA) government affairs symposium, held in conjunction with the NAMA national expo in St. Louis, Mo. recently.

The symposium is an annual gathering of state NAMA officers and the NAMA staff. Rowe, a veteran food industry observer and the only member of the NAMA board who is not a vending industry member, attempted to give her listeners some idea about what the “food environment” will be for the food and refreshment services industry.

Rowe is president of SR Strategy LLC, based in Washington, D.C.

She began her presentation with an illustration of round bombs labeled for the various concerns that consumers are facing and will continue to face: obesity, food safety, processed foods, scientific credibility, labeling standards, marketing standards, etc. “You have time bombs that have actively exploded,” she said.


With all of these “time bombs” exploding or about to explode, how are consumers influenced in their buying decisions? These decisions, according to Rowe, are driven by three key factors: time, taste and confusion. Confusion is being fed by the various things they hear, see and read in the media.

One more driver has recently entered the fray: cost. “The wild card that’s come in recently is cost,” she said. How cost considerations affect buying habits is an unknown factor at the present time.

Another influence affecting buying decisions today has to do with the ethics of food. In this regard, Rowe said the U.S. is following Europe, where concern about the environment and the treatment of animals play into buying decisions. “This (treatment of animals) is very much a new phenomenon, as well as the emphasis on green,” she said.

Green issues will become even more important as government agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission begin examining “green” claims in product labels.

Medicinal concerns are also influencing buying decisions, which brings in another set of factors. The functional food market has grown, and there has been a blending of pharmaceuticals and functional foods.

“What’s really unusual is the convergence of the issues,” Rowe said, referring to health, the environment, and the economy.


Focusing on the health aspects, consumers today have more health concerns than ever as science continues to offer more options. Top health considerations now include: high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, osteoporosis, and kidney disease.

Diabetes is of particular concern, Rowe said, because it is increasing.

Medical research continues to drive a lot of this concern. Rowe noted that from February 2006 to January 2007, there were 294 studies published. “The media love these journals,” Rowe said. Many of these studies evaluate different diets offered to help people manage their health.

Hot areas of research today include: the brain, satiety (the ability of a food to satiate hunger), chemical contaminants, ingredient safety, traceability, portion size, snacking and fat distribution.

Another area of research is “GIS” (Geographic information system) technology, which refers to proximity of something as a measure of its risk to public health. In Los Angeles County, Calif., a law was passed limiting the number of fast food restaurants. “You could conceivably do vending machines,” Rowe said. The most important issue of all for regulatory and legislative action will be obesity.


State officials have found that diabetes, which is closely related to obesity, is also increasing.

Government statistics indicate big increases in diabetes in most states from 1994 to 2005. It also has a disproportionate impact on lower income and minority populations.

Rising obesity and diabetes will affect health care costs. This is driving the concern among individuals, businesses and governments at all levels.

The media has been quick to pick up on the increasing health risks, and it is now contributing to the concern. Rowe noted that since 2000, “the increase (in media coverage) has been dramatic.” One reason is that there are many new angles that news organizations have been able to find on this issue.

A big angle has been childhood obesity. “Childhood obesity is the second-hand smoke of the obesity epidemic,” Rowe said.

Most observers agree that childhood obesity is a problem, but few solutions have been found to address it.

One reason that solutions have been elusive is that the causes have not been clearly identified. “There is no one cause; it is a complex of causes,” Rowe said.

The food and beverage industries have taken the most heat for the problem, she said.

Rowe said the discussion on obesity is beginning to focus more on prevention. Because of this, businesses that take a proactive stance on fighting obesity will gain some credit with the public.

In the meantime, the concern is being fueled from many different quarters, including the health industry, the scientific community, government, advocacy groups, the food industry, the media, and consumers themselves. Rowe noted that the industry was very slow to get involved in addressing the problem.

The entertainment industry has also become interested in the problem, evidenced by movies such as “Killer At Large.”

New players in the debate include trial lawyers, Wall Street economists, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and employers.


In the near future, the government will issue new dietary guidelines in 2010. The dietary guidelines are released every five years. The new guidelines could affect nutrition standards at all levels of government.

Rowe was not able to say if new standards will become mandatory in the marketing of foods or what the standards will be. There is no single set of standards that everyone is following.

One set that has become well known is the Institute of Medicine (IOM) for foods and beverages in schools.

Organizations such as the American Heart Association have offered standards, as have food and beverage manufacturers through their labeling programs. Other nutrition standards have been introduced by large retailers.

This year’s presidential election is the first time that obesity was mentioned in the platforms of both political parties, Rowe noted.

“We can look for more regulation no matter which party is in power,” she said.