Meaningful Research

On page 8, we introduce a new column to be written each month by a member of the staff of the Produce Marketing Association. Entitled Research Perspectives, the column will analyze the latest findings of PMA’s ongoing consumer and trade research. This month’s column, written by PMA president Bryan Silbermann, examines the disconnect between consumer perceptions of serving size and the government’s own conflicting definitions.

Shortly before he died in 1995, Barney McClure, the dean of produce promotion, told me he thought the 5-A-Day program held exceptional promise. This program, unlike past efforts that had simply urged greater consumption, was tied to a specific number. It gave people a real goal.

PMA research has shown Barney jumped the gun. He didn’t realize our message of eating at least five servings of produce a day was not meaningful to consumers because they had no clear idea of what a serving was.

One prerequisite to effective consumer advertising is to understand what consumers are hearing. If a commercial mentions Idaho potatoes, what do consumers associate with that? Is it any potato of any size, variety or color that is grown in Idaho? Or is it any long, white baking potato regardless of where it is grown? It is impossible to answer these types of questions without research.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation has retained a consulting company to help reposition and, probably, rename the 5-A-Day campaign in light of changes in the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans. PMA research and Bryan’s assessment of it are reminders to the industry to make sure we don’t focus on how we perceive these terms but, instead, base any repositioning and renaming on consumer understanding.

There is little doubt that Bryan is correct in arguing that the trade would be wiser to promote a tangible amount, such as one cup of an item, rather than using vague terms like two servings.

Servings are inherently subjective and complicated by the government’s and nutritionists’ use of a meaning that differs from everyday usage. The Princess cut of prime rib at my local steakhouse is nine ounces, Queen cut 12 ounces and King cut 16 ounces. Those are the literal serving amounts. Yet no dietician or nutritionist will say that a serving of prime rib is nine, 12 or 16 ounces. They distinguish between portions — the amount an individual chooses to eat — and servings — the official numbers.

But if the goal is to improve diets, there is a contradiction in terms. As Bryan notes, the FDA defines servings as “the amount that is customarily consumed.” Aye but there’s the rub. If the general population customarily eats unhealthfully, say a 16-ounce prime rib dinner with two ounces of green beans, the literal meaning of that FDA definition would define a serving of prime rib as 16 ounces and green beans as two ounces.

Then, as the nutritional message got out and people improved their diets, the definition would change as they switched to the Princess. But this has never happened. You would think FDA does surveys to announce the new serving definitions based on yearly dietary changes of the amount “customarily consumed” but it doesn’t. As Bryan implies, talking about servings is producing more smoke than light so we ought to give it up.

Although using cups is more tangible and will help the home cook measure ingredients to make family meals more healthful, that is not where the growth is. The growth is in eating out, buying takeout and, not as widely commented on, buying prepared foods of various sorts to incorporate into meals that are nominally prepared at home.

A useful area of research would be to see how accurately consumers recognize produce volumes. Serve people a salad and ask them to estimate how many cups of the various ingredients are in it. I’m not convinced their assessments will be any more accurate than consumer assessments of the number of servings of produce in a given dish.

A related research project might be more meaningful: Ask consumers who have eaten in a restaurant how many cups of each item were in the salad they were served. It is one thing to have people focus on estimating the volume of produce served, another thing still to learn how the combination of real-world inattention combines with inaccurate estimating to distort perceptions.

And to some extent, this is the easy part. A lot of produce is consumed either as an ingredient (cream of broccoli soup) or as a part of a bigger item (a hot dog with sauerkraut, relish, onions, ketchup, and mustard).

Imagine an individual who for breakfast has a glass of V-8 juice, eggs with salsa and orange marmalade on toast. For lunch, he has a Burger King Whopper and french fries. Trying to be healthful, he snacks on applesauce but then eats some of a friend’s potato chips. For dinner he has French onion soup, then spaghetti and meatballs — the meatballs made with chopped onion and celery, the sauce with tomato, garlic, herbs, and mushrooms. Dessert is an ice cream sundae with strawberries. Late at night, he has an egg roll from yesterday’s Chinese takeout.

Let us put aside the complicated questions: What colors were the produce eaten? Do french fries count? Potato chips? Let us simply ask: How many reading this column could accurately estimate the number of servings — or the number of cups — of produce consumed that day?

What chance to change eating patterns do most consumers have if they can’t even count what they eat? We better find out if we are going to spend lots of money and energy telling consumers how many cups to eat. We may find, with respect to Barney McClure, that the entire notion of marketing to consumers by urging consumption of specific quantities of produce may be suspect.