Sales of Packaged, Processed Foods are Declining. Here’s Why…

Reading industry news this morning, I saw the title of a blog post from Marion Nestle, an expert I respect and follow closely, “Sales of packaged, processed foods are declining: Three reasons why”. Marion Nestle is a dynamo as far as I’m concerned, so of course I clicked to read more.

You can read the article for yourself here, but to save you time, here’s a topline of the three reasons Nestle listed:

  1. Old-style packaging makes foods seem unnatural.  Clear packaging works better for sales.
  2. Taste preferences are changing. Consumers are seeking complex flavor profiles imported from more sophisticated food cultures.
  3. Consumers want companies to pay more attention to their effects on climate change.

What?

I suppose all of these things are true and may even provide some helpful guidance to brands seeking to stay relevant in our rapidly changing food culture. But clear packaging and more complex flavor offerings hardly seem like the remedy for brands who are struggling. (I intentionally ignored her item on climate change as I agree with that point.)

There’s a food movement happening in our country, or as I like to see it, a food awakening. Sure, clear packaging does look clean and crisp (and gives a literal sense of transparency…something consumers are really looking for). But, the reason I think packaged food sales are declining is because consumers are skeptical of packaged food. How the food looks and tastes are bare minimums, and they are no longer enough. Not even close.

Consumers may be largely confused (e.g. I heard a statistic recently that the majority of consumers believe the claims “local” and “organic” mean the same thing), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t able to vote with their shopper dollars as they figure it all out. They are reconnecting to real food and realizing that the food they’ve been buying for the last few decades doesn’t make sense. Limitless levels of protein and zero fat? Fluorescent colors? Two-year shelf life? They may not yet understand how these things are possible, but they are learning quickly and not liking what they learn. I am hopeful that consumers will soon understand that they need to re-frame their expectations for packaged food.

Here’s my list for why packaged, processed food sales are declining:

  1. Consumers want minimally processed, natural ingredients even if that means a shorter shelf life.
  2. Even packaged food should follow the nutritional constraints of Mother Nature. No more extremes in nutritional profiles, colors or flavors.
  3. Everyone should do their part to support the health of people and the planet, especially big food companies. All food brands should be thoughtful in how they source, create and sell their food and should transparently share this information as a way to inform and educate consumers.

I heard another expert group predicting retail “Armageddon” for food brands that are unable or unwilling to make big changes to their product portfolios and positions. I really believe this is true and hope that big food brands will harness their immense power and influence to help lead our food system to a place that is better for people and planet health.

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