Why We’re All Dieticians Now & Why Health Claims Are Redundant

I don’t know about you but I feel we are way, way past the “Information Age” in FMCG.

To coin a phrase, shoppers are now in the “Information Burnout and Disinformation Age”. So many views, ‘facts’, standards, opinions about what ‘healthy’ means in food and drink on pack claims, brand advertising, government health campaigns and of course social media all pitching in.

Above the noise of it all, it’s our job and responsibility to find credible information sources and make our own minds up. That’s a special duty for us as the people who shape what the nation(s) eat but also for us as shoppers, parents and partners.

Well what if I told you that many, many of the health claims on the front of food and drink packs are basically optimistic guesses at best, and totally false at worse?

Over the last 10 years or so there has been a surge in tech companies pushing the idea of the ‘quantified self’ – basically selling a whole bunch of devices to measure calories, heart rate, HRV, ovulation cycles, ketone levels and REM sleep.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. More numbers to worry about.  When I was a kid, people would just count their steps using an old school pedometer, be pleased and be done with it.

Huge amounts of investor cash are flowing into this new area of personalised nutrition and measurement. I look at many of these propositions and think ‘yeah, that may be interesting’, ‘so what’ or just plan ‘why?’. An ex boss of mine once told me ‘don’t do well what you shouldn’t do at all’ – much of this new tech seems to me to fall into this category.

But every now in then something genuinely game changing comes along.  

Now there is a class of wearables that give a real time view of glucose – these Continuous Glucose Monitors offer huge potential for human health improvements and they are dynamite that could quite literally blow up food and drink health claims. The trade needs to understand what’s coming and think through the implications.

glucose levels equipment

Blood glucose, also known as blood sugar, is the amount of glucose which is present in the blood.

Commonly expressed in mg per dl, blood glucose comes from the food and drink that we consume and is used by the body to create energy. Being able to maintain healthy levels of blood glucose is important as it can reduce the risk of developing heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, nerve damage and eye diseases.

Healthy blood glucose means minimising spikes in glucose. A number of things create these spikes: stress for instance, but food is the main driver. Within food it is sugar and starches (carbohydrate) that is the main culprit.

Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs) work by the user self-attaching a small plastic patch to their upper arm, about the size of a £2 coin.

This inserts a very small filament into the skin which measures the glucose levels in the fluid around the cells. Typically these stay attached for a couple of weeks at a time. This constant data is then sent to the user’s mobile app via Bluetooth, giving the user instant insight into how certain foods affect glucose levels and how these swings in glucose levels make the user feel.

They empower shoppers with the ability to self experiment with different foods, combinations and timings to see what the effect is for them. What people find is that the effects vary significantly from what they thought and from person to person. For instance, playing around with this technology I have found that potatoes in all their tempting forms cause me a huge glucose spike, but I can ‘get away’ with copious quantities of popcorn. The food that is absolute kryptonite for me is Cheesy Wotsits! Indulging over Christmas, I was shocked at the results of a pack of these.

Sorry, Walkers, I can share my N=1 data if you want.

What Does This Mean For Food And Drink Health Claims?   

Trust is precious and needs to be earned. Sadly, it’s in increasingly short supply in food and drink.

I think deep down, consumers are more aware than ever that there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to nutrition. They are also sceptical as the standard nutritional advice has had so many twists and turns over the years. Fat was demonised and is now slowly being rehabilitated. Sugar gets a far too easy a ride from public health.

Gone are the days when people would happily follow the ‘if in doubt cut it out’ rule when it comes to food so of course shoppers want to find out their personal nutrition.

What is the compound effect of this likely to be if one by one, pack by pack, consumers eat foods labelled as ‘good source of protein’, ‘high fibre’ etc and find that in fact these drive a large glucose spike?

This raising of expectations by brands and retailers on the front of pack means that when consumers find out their truth is radically different, then faith in the food industry just has further to fall.

data on computer

What Does The Data Say?

Dr Casey Means, the co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of health and wellness company Levels Health, has shown that products like instant oatmeal – marketed as a healthy breakfast choice – actually caused consumers’ blood glucose levels to go sky high.

So, a question – if a consumer had to pick which was the healthier snack, a cookie or a banana, which are they more likely to choose? A banana, right?

blood glucose in banana cookie chart

Ref: Dr Casey Means, Levels Health

But data from CGMs shows how differently two people react to these foods. One gets a high glucose-spike from the banana, the other from the cookie. With this data is it fair to describe bananas as ‘slow release energy’? Well, yes for some, but not at all for others.

Brands need to check out the many blogs written by their shoppers testing out CGMs for themselves – the content speaks for itself. Many are surprised by what the data is telling them. Snacks which they originally deemed as healthy, e.g. a bowl of berries, caused unexpectedly high blood glucose rises and many describe how knowing this information will change their eating behaviour indefinitely.

Creating Combination Snacks

Cutting out or reducing food isn’t the only way shopping habits may change – these devices allow consumers to experiment with how different food combinations may work together.

For example, just eating an apple may lead to an unwanted blood glucose peak for some – particularly the varieties cross bred for sweetness such as Pink Lady or Golden Delicious. But by pairing that apple with some peanut butter, the consumer can create a snack which keeps their glucose at a healthy level.

The Challenge For FMCG Marketing

This is a huge challenge for food and drink brands – this technology will empower consumers to move past food marketing. Once shoppers can create a personal, data driven truth they longer need to focus on what claims the packaging or the brand is making. If they stop believing you about health claims, where do you go from there as a brand?

Consumers will now be able to make diet choices based on personalised data, which ultimately is likely to lead to big changes in consumer behaviour.

Of course cynics will argue against this: it’s just a high end technology, people won’t be bothered to do it, it’ll take so long for mass adoption, it’s a flash in the pan and will never take off. Maybe I am wrong, but I feel this technology is the one that could make a huge difference.

The implication is that to keep up with this personalisation revolution, food marketing needs to rethink and reboot. The relationship with the shopper needs to move from parent to child to a more equal and adult one. If the glucose tracking trend lifts off, then it’s likely that consumers will start to lose their faith in brands that stick doggedly to food packaging health claims that just aren’t true.

Be Honest And Open

Better is a more open, honest and collaborative approach from brand. One where brands admit they too, like shoppers, are on a journey too. That they too are discovering how their products affect human metabolism, that they welcome data from their consumers, that they are developing their products and reformulating in light of what they learn.

man and woman high five

When I looked after own label at Tesco, one of the best interventions we made was the claim ‘same great taste, now even healthier’. I am thinking that thoughtful innovation along those lines is what’s needed in 2021, not in a few years when it’s too late.

There is a Chinese proverb that really resonates with me, it goes like this: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time, is now.”

Be honest, be real, admit you don’t have all the answers, find a way of partnering with your best, super loyal customers playing with this technology. Sign up for the technology yourself, have a play – you’ll be amazed at what you find out – and hatch a plan for how you are going to innovate to find the opportunity, the commercial upside in these changes.

To carry on the conversation about Continuous Glucose Monitors and how this may impact your food marketing, please email jess@hra-global.com or hamish@hra-global.com. Alternatively, find our company contact details.

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