It’s nearly impossible to attach a universal meaning to any single word or phrase because words mean different things on different labels and to different people.

This is a time of opportunity, though, to capture shoppers’ attention and trust, as more of them are trying to spend less and have more meals at home.

Fuzzy language is widespread among microwavable food packages. The first consumer who brought microwave confusion to my attention was actually feeling confused about the healthfulness of microwavable foods.

“On the one hand, microwave-only foods are getting a lot better and a lot healthier,” this consumer said. “On the other hand, they are getting more processed and more full of additives and sugars than ever. What are we supposed to think?”

I loved her question and wanted to call it to your attention. The way consumers are responding to calorie-specific portions of many kinds of foods tells me they are looking for clarity and certainty in a sea of ambiguity. The opportunity to provide clarify is worth thinking about on your next label review.

Microwavable foods are hot!

Large or small, built-in or perched almost anywhere, microwave ovens have become almost as ubiquitous and diverse as televisions. Some consumers use them many times each day, for everything from scrambling eggs and softening ice cream to heating frozen entrees or hot compresses for pulled muscles.

A poll of our shoppers found that they routinely use microwaves for the following:

• liquids and solids that have gotten cold

• leftovers

• soup from a can or box

• frozen vegetables, especially those packaged for microwave steaming

• products that are packaged specifically for microwave use (such as Campbell’s Soup at Hand, Hormel Chili, Kraft’s frozen Macaroni and Cheese)

• microwave popcorn

• prepared frozen entrees by Lean Cuisine, Swanson, Uncle Ben’s, Michelina or others

Some consumers feel they couldn’t live without their microwave(s).

On the flip side, however, some consumers go weeks at a time without using a microwave at all. Some avoid sitting or standing near one that’s turned on. Some feel that nothing made for microwaving or heated in a microwave is as tasty or as healthy as something made for or heated on a stovetop or in a conventional oven. Some don’t replace them when they move or break down. Do your consumers believe any of the following statements?

“It’s easier to eat healthfully when you give up microwaving.”

“I’d actually forgotten how easy it was to turn on a stove. And the soup I heat on the stove at home stays hotter longer than the soup I cook in the microwave at work.”

“You shouldn’t put microwave and good food in the same sentence.”

Negatives notwithstanding, the microwavable food market has been forecast to pass $75 billion by the end of this decade. One of the reasons for its growth is that microwavable foods are getting better — they’re tastier and healthier — especially vegetables. Steamable packaging seems a perfect marriage of technology and healthy eating. Consumers know that steaming vegetables is a healthy way to capture vegetables’ goodness and flavor. Voila, you have delicious veggies that really go right from the store shelf into the microwave. And some of the results are really fabulous, tasting as consistently good as or better than anything that many consumers can fix on their own.

Aside from the taste, ease and prep speed, one of the great things about the steam packages is their clarity. Not that everyone uses exactly the same language, but some variation of the word STEAM appears in full-size product identification type on just about all the packages. “SteamFresh.” “Simply Steam.” “Steams in the bag.” “Steamable.” Shoppers can tell that these products can go directly into a microwave oven and get steaming hot.

Some tell us that these steam products are overpriced, (“Very good but very pricey!”), but no one finds them confusing. The clarity is welcome and important.

Dual-ovenable? Or micro only?

Too many microwavable packages lack clarity because many marketers try to straddle the lines between different uses. Some marketers avoid using the word “microwave” in their sell copy because it does have negative quality or health connotations with some consumers. But consumers want and deserve to know right off the bat if the product can be heated any way they choose, or if one cooking method can be expected to yield better results than other.

Some marketers are using cooking times, such as, “Ready in 4 minutes” or “2 minutes” as a shorthand way of saying fast prep and microwavable. But front-panel minutes are also used to describe instant cereals, which actually take two or three minutes after adding hot water and don’t have to be microwaved at all.

Differences in microwave and conventional-oven heating times remain astronomical. A family-sized package of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese claims to be ready in 10 minutes in a microwave or 50 minutes in a conventional oven.

Today, most consumers expect to have their choice of heating method, and most products can be heated in many different ways. Some packages function as heatable containers in microwave ovens but aren’t safe in conventional ovens. Some work in conventional ovens but not in toaster ovens.

Many entrees and side dishes are designed for microwave heating because the people who buy them are in a hurry. These products bury the instructions for conventional cooking on side or back panels, even while reminding consumers to cook the product thoroughly for the sake of safety.

For example, the front panels of Hormel’s meat entrees tell consumers that they are “Ready in 4 Minutes.” The back panels let consumers know that additional recipes and conventional cooking methods can be found inside the tray.

The “cook thoroughly” instruction raises a question about the safety of microwaving, which rarely heats all the way through to the extent that conventional heating does. Some consumers think that microwave cooking instructions should remind consumers that thorough cooking takes more attention when using a microwave than when using a stove.

The mixed messages on food packages are exacerbated by creative introductions of healthy vegetables that steam in the microwave, and fun foods like General Mills’ line of desserts called Betty Crocker Warm Delights and Warm Delights Minis. On the front panel selling space of the Hot Fudge Brownie Warm Delights, a large spoonful of brownie is displayed, with tiny print that says “ENLARGED TO SHOW DETAIL.” Alongside the Hot Fudge Brownie product identification is a tiny picture of a microwave oven with tiny instructions to “JUST ADD WATER AND MICROWAVE.”

Seeing that product for the first time, it’s easy to think that it contains an already-baked, ready-to-eat brownie that is meant to be eaten warm.

On the contrary, the package contains a sleeved bowl and brownie mix that must be combined with water and stirred, and can only be made edible in a microwave. In other words, this is a microwave-only product that uses a tiny picture of a microwave to say so.

Mona Doyle is the CEO of The Consumer Network Inc., a firm that regularly takes the pulse of consumers on packaging issues. She publishes The Shopper Report newsletter. Contact her at 215-235-2400 or

This story originally appeared on the Web site for Food & Beverage Packaging, a sister publication of The National Provisioner. For more packaging insight, click on