If the U.S. government declares that dietary cholesterol is no longer worrisome, there is one clear winner: The egg industry. But beyond that, the food-marketing implications get a little greasy.
Some marketing experts say "no cholesterol" claims don't resonate like they used to do. But more new food products are carrying such claims, according to one research group, suggesting that plenty of people still care.
Brands might have to take a fresh look at cholesterol claims if federal agencies act on a revised cholesterol recommendation recently put forth by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
As The Washington Post recently reported, the influential panel recently decided that dietary cholesterol need no longer be considered a "nutrient of concern." The panel's report will be considered by government agencies that draft federal dietary guidelines. At present, the guidelines call for keeping cholesterol ingestion below 300 milligrams daily.
As the Post noted, the finding "on cholesterol in food does not reverse warnings about high levels of 'bad' cholesterol in the blood, which has been linked to heart disease." And everyone agrees that saturated fats should be kept in check. Sorry, bacon lovers.
Eggs could be the clear winner because they are seen as generally healthy beyond their high levels of cholesterol, and are a good source of protein.
And protein has been among the biggest food buzzwords of late.
For egg marketers, "this is big news for them to talk about," said Nancy Childs, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph's University. But for most consumers, the potential change in guidelines "is one more piece of news that they are going to roll their eyes [at]," she added. "Most consumers have backed off on their concern with cholesterol because there have been so many pharmaceutical solutions for them."
The heyday for cholesterol concerns was in the 1980s and fears peaked in 1990 when about 50% of all meal preparers said they were "very concerned" about serving foods with cholesterol, said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for NPD Group, which tracks long-term food trends. That figure dropped to an all-time low of 27% last year, he said.
The trend could be a reflection of evolving cholesterol research that has found its way into the mainstream. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, was recently quoted by Time as saying that "in the general population, there's really not any strong evidence for a link" between the intake of dietary cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.
"The research conclusions on high-cholesterol foods have changed much as they have done with coffee over the years," said Rick Shea, a former packaged-food marketing executive and president of Shea Marketing. "Eggs are no longer a source of high cholesterol but instead a great source of protein. Coffee is no longer bad for you because of caffeine but now is a great source of antioxidants."
For food marketers, "the focus now is so much more on positive nutrition like fiber and protein," said Jaime Schwartz, VP-director of nutrition for Ketchum, who advises brands on nutrition communication strategy. "People want positive messages of what they can eat more of, not less," she said. "It is not as motivating to eat a certain food because it has zero grams of cholesterol. People want to eat food that is described as being delicious and good for you."
Still, the number of new products making claims of no, low, or reduced cholesterol has actually risen of late, according to market research firm Mintel. Of U.S. products launched in 2014, 8.7% made such claims, up from 7.7% in 2013 and 4.3% back in 2000.
"Cholesterol is still top of mind for a lot of consumers" especially older buyers, said David Turner, Mintel's global food and drink analyst. And no matter what the government decides, "low cholesterol messages will still resonate," he added. The message that cholesterol is bad has been "hammered in since the 1970s and earlier," he said. "So you've got that residual effect."