By: Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Food technology and innovation, along with consumer demand, have led to a rapid rise of new food products entering the marketplace. This is partially in response to increasing consumer concern for the environment as a driver for food companies to offer options that are perceived to be more sustainable, ethical and healthy. As a result, niche markets such as plant-based alternatives, functional foods and unique food products have boomed. This trend is especially prevalent among younger consumers, whose food purchasing decisions are heavily influenced by personal values related to larger issues, including environmental protection and sustainability, social justice and animal welfare.
Technology and innovation are an integral part of the modern food industry. They provide an opportunity for food companies to respond to consumer demands and a changing environment. Innovative food products can be convenient and add variety to eating patterns. They may even enhance the nutrient profile of traditional foods. For example, pastas made from lentils, beans or quinoa can be a good replacement for traditional, refined pasta because they provide an opportunity to introduce more protein, nutrition and fiber into the diet with a simple swap of pasta type, which does not change the meal itself or increase food prep time.
Food innovation is also helping companies meet demand for more sustainable food options as concern for climate change continues to rise. This has led to the rapidly growing range of plant-based foods and beverages designed to look and taste like animal-sourced foods. While innovation has positive outcomes, it is important for consumers to be aware that new food offerings may not always live up to their marketing promise and to consider nutritional and long-term health impacts along with other potential benefits.
Though many new food products are marketed as climate-friendly and healthier, some health experts and scientists caution that they may not deliver on all their claims, as highly-processed foods are typically not nutritionally equivalent to the foods they seek to replace. For example, plant-based dairy-free beverage alternatives are often marketed as a healthier substitute for dairy milk. Yet when compared to dairy milk, leading health experts agree that these beverages (with the exception of soymilk when dairy cannot be consumed) are not nutritionally equivalent or even suitable as milk replacements, especially for young children. Plus, dairy milk provides additional health benefits as a result of its nutrients working synergistically to support muscle and bone development in children and prevent chronic diseases in children and adults alike.
It is important to note that innovative food options are not accessible to all consumers. There are many households that have limited food choices available to them, for a variety of reasons, including proximity to grocery stores and high costs. Novelty foods are typically more expensive, harder to find and less readily available for purchase than their traditional counterparts. As a result, new products are more likely to be purchased by affluent and income-stable households and less likely to be purchased by families living in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, further widening disparities in food options available to low-income households.
As consumer demand for sustainable and healthier foods continues to grow, food companies will develop new food products and bring them to market. Nutrition experts, health professionals and consumers will need to critically evaluate the pros and cons of each food from both an environmental and nutritional perspective. Marketing is a powerful tool, and how food companies market new and innovative food products has the potential to influence the eating patterns of adults and children alike. Many consumers rely on marketing and peer endorsements to help guide food choices, but these are not always reliable sources of information for nutrition or healthy eating guidance. Marketing highly processed products as similar to or better than more cost-effective, regularly consumed whole foods, especially if they are not nutritionally equivalent, can create consumer confusion, false confidence in products, nutrient deficiencies and sub-par growth and development for children.
For instance, due to celebrity endorsements and targeted marketing, children—especially those who are from vulnerable communities—continue to be exposed to the marketing of foods that can be harmful to their health, such as sugar-sweetened beverages. With online and social media driving how younger audiences engage with one another and receive information, companies have leveraged those same mediums to bombard them with more information, advertisements and endorsements about what and how to eat, drink, buy and champion than ever before. A 2019 analysis on media trends found that kids ages 2-11 saw twice as many ads for sugary drinks than any other beverage. Drinks like soda, sports drinks and energy drinks contain excessive amounts of added sugars while providing little or no nutritional value, and regular consumption of these beverages is associated with an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. To combat marketing, education is needed to ensure children, parents and health care providers understand the importance of offering healthy food and beverage choices, such as milk and other dairy products, fresh fruit and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains.
Nutrition experts, educators and health professionals are unable to control the foods that go to market, but they can play a role by helping ensure the right information is communicated to consumers. Teaching critical thinking skills and providing credible sources of nutrition information help to bridge the knowledge gap, enabling children and families to recognize marketing techniques and identify which foods to include in healthy eating patterns.
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal is the project manager of nutrition science and a registered dietitian nutritionist.
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