There have been plenty of major food fights over the past several years, as more companies are called out for describing their foods with words such as “natural.” The movement toward more transparency in food labeling has been a rocky one: With California’s attempt to mandate GMO-labeling ending in expensive failure, only for companies are now moving in that direction as a result of Vermont’s recent passage of GMO-labeling requirements.
As consumers demand more transparency in how food is made and become more aware of the social and economic impacts of our global food supply, we see companies scrambling to make sure more of their products are fair trade, organic or free range.
Now, Mars is raising the bar higher with a bold, yet potentially slippery, new approach toward food labeling. Last week, the privately-owned food giant announced what it calls a Health and Wellbeing Ambition plan that seeks to promote more healthful food choices and encourage people to share such meals with others. Meanwhile, over the next five years, the company insists it will reduce the amount of sugar and sodium in many of its foods, while incorporating more healthful ingredients such as whole grains and legumes. But what stands out the most is the company’s drive to label “everyday” versus “occasional” foods.
All eyes will be on how Mars decides which foods are fine for daily consumption versus the occasional treat. Clearly those iconic Snickers bars will go on the indulgent “occasional list.” But to the company’s credit, if it follows through, labeling will be more than a fancy way to say good versus bad. Such labeling will say how often it is recommended that such meals or snacks are eaten, and how long it takes the body to “restore balance” after they are consumed.
For many products, the company says it will recommend only eating them once a week — surely new territory for any food company, as they have bombarded consumers for years with marketing messages that tie their products to a vivacious, active lifestyle. This move by Mars is analogous to when Patagonia turned heads within the apparel industry by telling consumers “don’t buy this jacket,” a completely counterintuitive tactic during the busy holiday shopping season.
What will also be interesting to watch is how far Mars takes another one of these new directives. While boosting the nutritional profile of its foods, the company also states that it will encourage people to share 1 billion more healthful meals at dinner tables worldwide. How that number will be counted and validated is one big open question. But Mars could be onto something: The evidence suggests that worldwide, families are eating together less now than in the past. Whether the decline is gradual, as Gallup suggests, or dramatic, as one privately-funded survey posited, such a trend is evident.
If Mars can have a role both in the improvement of public health and the communal experience in dining, such a triumph should be celebrated five years from now when these company initiatives become fully implemented.
Image credit: Mars Inc.