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Studies: Knowing When To Respond

Navigating the waters of scientific study, public interest and consumer trends can be tricky, but savvy manufacturers can see the big picture.

I continually am amazed by the flood of new studies suggesting that consumers eat this; avoid that; disregard this study; ignore that study, the results of which overturned some other study that should be reconsidered; and so on. Savvy consumers looking to keep themselves and their families healthy are likely too overwhelmed to know what to think.

Last month, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a new study suggesting that those with high salt intake were four times less likely to suffer from heart disease. The study did find a correlation between high sodium intake and increased blood pressure, but elevated blood pressure didn’t necessarily correlate with an increased risk of heart disease.

As reported by TIME, some doctors believe that the correlation between decreased salt intake and increased cardiovascular episodes may result from ultra-low sodium consumption leading to a triggering a release of sodium reserves in the body, which can be linked to increased heart health risks. Other doctors question the veracity of the study, citing the way it measured participants’ sodium levels and the relatively young median age of the participants.

Even if this study is faulty, it has already had an impact, calling into question consumer confidence in the health choices they are making and forcing grocery shoppers to reconsider conventional wisdom on the topic.

So, how should food manufacturers respond to health studies?

First, latching onto a stand-alone study is likely ill advised. Whenever a study is released that posits a counterintuitive conclusion, it is typically followed shortly by several other studies that attempt to discredit it as well as hundreds of scientists combing the research searching for a fatal flaw.

While scientific discovery is a never-ending and continuous process, there are some things that we have determined pretty conclusively. If a new study suggests that massive sugar consumption leads to weight loss, perhaps wait a few days before releasing a press release about how your company’s Sugar Bucket Syrup Drink can double as a weight loss product.

Second, be careful about developing new products according to health fads or trends. After a rash of studies suggested that the success of low-carbohydrate diets might just as likely be linked to the fact that, by virtue of the foods one is allowed to eat, such diets are typically low calorie diets as well, the Atkins hysteria of the early 2000s died down quite a bit, and many low-carb product purveyors lost big.

New product development often requires capital equipment investment, as specific ingredients require specialized processing considerations. Making micro-adjustments to product lines in order to meet up-to-the-second demands of consumers and health studies is not realistic, nor is it practical.

Food industry and public health studies often compliment each other, however, and food manufacturers can use these larger arcs to paint a more comprehensive picture of the state of consumer interest and public health knowledge. For example, many studies point to the danger of childhood obesity. These studies, combined with the White House initiative to help young children become more active and provide healthier lunches in public schools is shining a bright light on the issue. Parents are seeking out healthier food options for their children, and when large, national brands offer these options, consumers are happy to buy from a company they trust.

Navigating the waters of scientific study, public interest and consumer trends can be tricky, but savvy food manufacturers can see the big picture and meet customer demands as they arise.

Thoughts? Questions? Get in touch at [email protected].