Navigating the best way to communicate about nutrition and health when media headlines and social media scream contradiction and confusion can be rocky.
There’s bamboozling technical terms, acronyms, food regulations and loads of jargon about nutrition. After many years of client counsel and working with brands who want to get it right, we’ve pulled together the five top things we’d never say as nutrition communication professionals.
#1 Professional Nutrition Communication Guideline: Don’t jump to conclusions that “X causes Y”
We’ve all seen headlines like “Chilli consumption linked to dementia” or “Eating fried chicken every day could mean you die earlier”. These stories make it easy to believe that diet and health are super simple. What’s more, these conflict-laden headlines lay the groundwork for competitive claims on why this is better than that or push a need to reformulate food and drink products, confusing the food and health landscape even more.
When we look at most of the published research studies behind these headlines, we often find the research is ‘observational’ and the results show an association between these two factors, rather than it being the cause. Correlation does not equal causation, as the Australian Bureau of Statistics explains.
This is really important as it means the research has not proven that the food or drink causes the health outcome. In fact, there is often a secondary factor linking the two, for example obesity.
As nutrition professionals, we know that most diseases are complex and not caused by one single food, but a multitude of lifestyle factors as well as genetics.
How to communicate research results clearly: We would say the study found X was associated with Y, but Y is complex with factors like levels of physical activity, weight or even socio-economic status also influencing the outcome of the research. We’d also look at what researchers call ‘the weight of evidence’ to place the findings in context – is this the first time this finding has been published? Or have there been other papers published that show the same association? If you’d like to find out more, we recommend reading becoming a savvy science reader.
Australians are hungry for information about nutrition, food and diet – it’s essential this information doesn’t add to the confusion but places the study findings in context to help people make more informed choices. We’re not a big fan of scare tactics in nutrition communications, particularly if it’s based on one small study.
#2 Professional Nutrition Communication Guideline: Don’t proclaim that a food or drink is rich in vitamin X, Y or Z or contains minerals A, B or C
It’s exciting to review the nutrient profile of a food or drink product and want to tell the story about its inherent goodness. But food and drink claims must meet the Food Standards Code guidelines on Nutrient Claims.
Stating that a food or drink is rich in protein or carbs, or a great source of a vitamin or mineral actually implies the food is a good source of that nutrient and needs to provide a certain percentage of the recommended daily intake (there’s a calculator for that here).
How to communicate nutrient claims clearly: Don’t communicate the laundry list of nutrients for a product – this isn’t the most compelling way to engage with consumers. Instead, find the nutritional point of difference and create a food and drink story that is descriptive enough to allow the consumer to understand the context of what the product is offering. For example, it’s more engaging to explain the food or drink is a rich source of resistant starch, a natural prebiotic for digestive wellbeing which makes you feel good on the inside and out rather than telling people it contains plenty of Vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and resistant starch.
#3 Professional Nutrition Communication Guideline: Don’t claim that drinking or eating products can reduce the risk of X disease unless it really does
Health claims are a risky business and there are clear regulations on what type of health claim you can make, how to make it and which foods and drinks are able to make them. The type of claim depends on the quality of evidence available and the nutrient profiling score (NPS) the food receives.
The NPS uses an algorithm to assess and score health claims. Minimum scores apply for different categories of foods and drinks to allow them to bear a claim. For example, confectionery cannot be promoted as a product that contains calcium for healthy bones. Read more here.
Australian food law defines health claims in categories: general or high-level. There are currently 200 general level claims and 13 high-level claims approved. These standards apply to all marketing communications like media releases, digital communications and sponsored social posts. It’s essential to take a consistent and considered approach to health claims when talking about food and drinks.
Just as businesses have brand style guides, we recommend a “brand nutrition communications guide” for teams to formalise and explain how and when to make health, nutrition and research claims.
How to communicate health claims clearly: Rather than speak directly to the health claim, it helps to add context for the consumer. For example, if there is research or regulatory approval to support the claim, we would say something like “This food contains X and can help prevent Y”.
We’re great believers in creating nutrition stories around everyday benefits of food and drinks. For example, selling the taste and wellbeing benefits should never be too far away from the nutrition angle. Consumers like to understand how food or drink can boost their energy or contribute to their overall digestive wellbeing or even affect their mood.
#4 Professional Nutrition Communication Guideline: Don’t say it will be easy to change behaviour because your product is healthy
It’s not easy to change people’s eating behaviour and our latest national nutrition survey shows Australian diets are increasingly made up of treat foods compared to healthy core foods. This is despite the plethora of communications and media stories explaining how to eat healthily and brands clamouring to advertise how their food and drinks are ‘better for you’.
Consumers choose food for many different reasons including taste, value and convenience, so we need to uncover the key motivators to engage and drive dietary change. Nutrition and health messages can be an important part of this communication, but sometimes don’t need to play the lead role.
How to communicate the need for behavioural change clearly: It’s not easy for people to change their behaviour and communicators must understand the needs and wants driving the behaviour in the first place. It’s only when we hold meaningful consumer insights that we can craft a story that nudges consumers to make healthier changes slowly without sacrificing the taste or convenience underpinning their food and drink choices.
A stepping-stone approach is the most practical way to help change consumer’s palates and behaviour. Small changes over time – like shifting from full-sugar to reduced-sugar or meat-based eating to ‘meat-free Mondays’.
#5 Professional Nutrition Communication Guideline: Don’t just say your food can be eaten as part of a healthy balanced diet.
This is a safe and easy fallback position in nutrition communications, as it places the food or beverage safely within the context of an overall healthy eating plan. But it’s real ‘wash over’ communications from a consumer-perspective. People want to know why a food or drink should fit in their diet – we need to let them know the practical benefit along with the easy ‘how to’ like how much, how often or when to eat or drink it.
And, more and more consumers are becoming informed and making ethical choices relating to food. Where relevant, food brands need to start telling the holistic story – the benefit for people’s health, along with the health of the planet.
How to communicate how your food fits into healthy eating clearly: Be proactive, relevant and positive in your communications around food and drink and don’t get caught up in boring nutrition-speak. Suggest things like “Enjoy food X at breakfast to energise you throughout the day” or “Enjoy food Y three or four times a week to boost your energy”.