Too busy to cook and thinking of heating up that lasagna for dinner yet again? Mars Foods wants you to think again.
Over the next few years, the company—which owns a lot of food brands besides the candy it's best known for—plans to introduce new food labeling that tells consumers how often it’s appropriate to eat its food products, based on World Health Organization guidelines. Foods that have too much salt, sugar, or fat will be labeled "occasional" and everything else will be called an "everyday" food.
Many packaged and prepared food companies are trying to appeal to more health-conscious consumers today, taking voluntary steps to remove artificial ingredients, sugar, and GMOs, or use more organic or whole grain ingredients. In some places, governments are introducing more regulations or stringent guidelines, such as a tax on sugary drinks in the U.K. or a proposed dietary value for "added sugar" in the United States.
The "everyday" and "occasional" labeling takes it a bit further. "Consumers are more and more interested in eating a balanced diet," says Craig Annis, vice president of corporate affairs at Mars Foods. "We thought that going the extra step from a transparency perspective was really important."
The new labeling plan applies only to its "main meal" products, which include Uncle Ben’s rice and Dolmio pasta sauces but not its Snickers candy bars (presumably most people know those should be occasional foods—even if they can’t help but eat them seven days a week). As it rolls out the new labeling, some products such as whole grain rice will clearly be for eating every day. Mars also plans to reformulate some recipes to remove salt and fat so they can be classified as "everyday" foods. About 5% of its foods that need fat and salt to taste good, such as pesto or lasagna, will always be in the "occasional" category, says Annis. That means, according to the company, eating them no more than once a week.
The labeling plan, which is part of the company’s larger health and wellness initiatives, will be put in place over five years, says Annis, with changes to the website coming as soon as this year and packaging labels later. After making the announcement, Annis heard of a few French retailers who are doing similar labeling, but no global company or government has done anything similar yet, he says. He hopes others will follow, however.
Whether this kind of labeling will have any affect on consumer behavior will be interesting to see. Done widely, it could be a more intuitive way to make grocery shopping decisions, rather than having to do math in your head analyzing nutrition labels. But these terms are a little hard to parse without considering them within the context of our individual diets. And unless regulated, it's pretty easy to foresee the definitions of "everyday" and "occasional" foods getting slippery awfully fast.