This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.
On your last visit to the grocery store, you may have noticed the multitude of products proclaiming “no trans fats,” or “gluten-free,” or “high fiber.” These voluntary claims are one way companies compete for customers. But what influences food companies’ use of these claims, and are they successful in boosting sales?
In my work at USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), I’ve explored how changes in the marketing environment might affect companies’ reliance on health and nutrition claims. I looked at new and reformulated products introduced between 1989 and 2010 and whether they carried a health or nutrient content claim or not, and what type of claims were made.
Since 2001, use of health and nutrition claims have been on the rise. Just over 43 percent of new food products in 2010 made health and nutrition claims, up from 25 percent in 2001. Companies are paying particular attention to hot-button issues such as obesity and the latest trending nutrients like antioxidants and omega-3 when deciding how to promote their products.
But not all claims are created equal. My analysis found that use of “no fat” or “low fat” claims fell during the 2001-2010 period, as companies saw consumers shunning fat-free and low-fat versions of foods in the mid-1990s.
Given the recent increase in claim usage, I was also curious about how these claims might be affecting sales. I found that sales of new and reformulated products bearing voluntary claims outpaced sales of new products in general during 2009 and 2010. Sales of new products bearing health and nutrition claims grew by 171 percent versus the 145-percent increase for all new products. Without controlling for other factors, such as advertising and price, this doesn’t confirm that claims were the reason for the higher sales. But the results are consistent with that conclusion.
More information on sales of products with health and nutrition claims, and on other issues in the use of these claims, can be found in the Economic Research Service report Introduction of New Food Products With Voluntary Health- and Nutrition-Related Claims, 1989-2010.