business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

I’m a big fan of transparency, but I think many nutritional labels are an enemy of the people. Or at least this middle-aged person, tired of squinting to decipher all that information crammed into an infinitesimal space.

So I welcomed the report that a new digital tool known as SmartLabel allows shoppers to get easy access to extra detailed information about products they consume and use – without having to reach for a magnifying glass (as I, admittedly, have done).

The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) last week launched an extensive consumer awareness campaign to promote SmartLabel, a joint effort.

The two industry organizations cited a new study showing that an overwhelming majority of U.S. shoppers have access to technology and want to make more informed choices, with a focus on ingredients, sourcing, sustainability and usage instructions.

Copy that. I downloaded the free SmartLabel app on my iPhone (very user-friendly) and immediately started scanning the QR codes on standard grocery items in my pantry.

To borrow a line from the Content Guy, the experience was an eye-opener.

I began with the iconic Campbell’s Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup. The good news: Only 60 calories per serving, and I learned the chicken was thigh meat removed by hand at USDA-approved farms in America. The fresh egg noodles are rolled just before they are added. The bad news: each serving contains 890 mg of sodium, or 37% of the percent daily value for sodium. Ouch. Condensed Tomato Soup, by contrast, has 480 mg sodium. Each can contains the puree of five tomatoes harvested by California family farmers. Who knew?

I was feeling more positive about another standby: the original Nabisco Triscuit. The product is made of three ingredients: whole-grain wheat, sea salt and vegetable oil. And non-GMO verified. Six crackers were 120 calories, and contained 160 mg of sodium, or 7% of the daily value.

While pleased with the five calories per serving of Crystal Light Pure Lemonade, I was chagrined when I read it contained “less that 2% of natural flavor.”

There are now nearly 28,000 food, beverage, personal care and household products using SmartLabel in retail stores and in its online database. That’s up from 4,000 when the product was launched in early 2017.

Among the heavyweight manufacturers participating: Coca-Cola, Conagra, Colgate-Palmolive, Dole, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft-Heinz , Mondelez, Nestle, P&G, Pepsi-Cola and Unilever. Retailers on the list include Ahold, Albertsons and Hy-Vee.

Interestingly, when I scanned Mars-owned Uncle Ben’s Original Rice, it was not in the database on the app or the website. Ditto Cargill’s Diamond Crystal Salt. So, while there may be 28,000 SKUs in the database, there clearly is a long way to go. Transparency, in this case, needs to be wide and deep.

I think SmartLabel is a well-timed, well-designed initiative and presents an enormous opportunity for retailers to connect with their customers. And if it pushes stores to provide and promote wi-fi access or add scanners in every aisle, all the better.

Mark Baum, FMI’s chief collaboration officer and senior vice president of industry relations, said the goal was “to provide an experience that’s credible and trustworthy, effectively making connections with shoppers by going well beyond the traditional package label.”

He added: “Imagine a grocery category manager helping a customer answer his or her allergen question or meet a lifestyle challenge by opening the SmartLabel app.”

I’d say that works, for everyone.

In the meantime, I think I’ll go with Tomato Soup and a handful of Triscuits for lunch, and continue my product research without having to squint.

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