Bringing consumers the product transparency they crave

Shoppers take brands to task with a “show me” attitude toward ingredients and sourcing.

Ronak Sheth wonders about an era in which we can have groceries delivered in less than two hours, but actionable information about what is in those groceries is still out of reach for many consumers. The chief customer officer at Label Insight works to help companies gather that information and make it available for the products they offer.

From where grapes were sourced in the juice parents serve their children, to whether cage-free eggs were used in bakery products, consumers are demanding a new level of information and control regarding the products they buy.

Why is transparency important now?

In order to build trust and credibility in a brand, packaged goods companies need to give consumers answers to their questions. Do they use GMO? Are their products free of artificial ingredients? Was my shampoo tested on animals?

Is ingredient transparency a simple goal for packaged goods companies?

It’s a challenge, currently. Right now, there are about 250,000 ingredient names that live on food packages. Those are different names for a total of about 10,000 ingredients. For instance, artificial color Yellow No. 5 appears under many names on packaging. Consumers don’t want complicated ingredient taxonomy. They don’t want to have to have a doctoral degree to read a label. They want plain language.

Are there geographic differences in consumers’ need for transparency?

Sure. There have been. The United States has not been as demanding as Europe and other parts of the world. But it’s beginning, even at the state level. Vermont just passed a GMO labeling law. I recently attended the Partnership for a Healthier America Annual Summit in Washington, D.C., where Michelle Obama spoke. Companies are making big commitments to reduce sodium and sugar in products by as much as 30 percent, publicly. Transparency will be required on claims like that with new formulations.

In other parts of the world—developing markets like India—packaged food is becoming a bigger part of the food supply. As packaged foods grow in popularity, the demand for transparency will increase.

What’s next in this area of the industry?

Transparency is a journey—it’s not "check the box" and you’re done. It’s a maturity curve. What’s next is the next layer of transparency. Online smart pages for products, like what Unilever has done for its Hellmann’s mayonnaise, will become commonplace. They list nutritional information, but also ingredients’ country of origin, geographic source within that country, growing methods. They list allergens and any other pertinent info. And all of this is now available to consumers on their device at the point of purchase or at home—just not on enough consumer goods products.

Transparency will create a fundamental shift in the types of products manufacturers create. It’ll be easier for consumers to speak with their wallets.