HEALTHFULNESS closed in on taste and price this year among the leading priorities for consumers when making food and beverage purchasing decisions, according to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation's "2014 Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes toward Food Safety, Nutrition & Health."
"While people's attitudes about healthfulness in their food and beverage purchases and consumption alone don't necessarily mean we are a healthier country today than we were a year or two ago, it could signal that we are moving in the right direction," said Marianne Smith Edge, IFIC senior vice president for nutrition and food safety. "If perceptions translate into actions, the impact on the health and wellness of our nation could be significant and long-lasting."
The ninth annual food and health survey asked 1,005 Americans ages 18-80 important questions about food safety, nutrition and health-related topics. The survey reveals insights into Americans' views on diet and health.
Similarly to previous years, 90% of consumers reported taste as the number-one factor for beverage and food selection, while price followed closely at 73%. Even though taste and price remained unchanged, healthfulness jumped 10 points to 71% this year (Figure 1).
As a matter of fact, the report notes that nine out of 10 consumers have given at least a little consideration to the healthfulness of foods and beverages, and half have given it a considerable amount of thought.
Interestingly, younger consumers often rank convenience as an influencing determinant when purchasing food and beverage items; however, the importance of this factor decreased from 56% to 51% in one year.
Moreover, sustainability has less bearing on food and beverage selection than the other four considerations, but it is still a factor for 38% of respondents, especially for women.
Looking closely at the individual demographic groups, the overall healthfulness impact increased across all age, ethnicity, education and socioeconomic demographic groups.
The largest surge for healthfulness impact was among participants 18-34 years of age, with a climb from 55% to 66%, whereas the impact among older age groups rose just 3%.
A nine-point increase among men — from 56% last year to 65% this year — was a significant gain, as was the increase among those who are not college graduates, 67% of whom reported that their purchasing decisions were influenced by healthfulness, up from 61% in 2013.
More important, according to the IFIC survey results, consumers are taking additional steps to eat healthier.
Similar to previous years, nine out of 10 American rank themselves as being in excellent to good health, and a majority reported trying to lose or maintain weight.
In general, Americans believe that a healthy diet is a significant priority in life. Although spending time with loved ones is more important than eating healthy, 40% feel that consuming healthy foods and beverages is more imperative than having an active social life. Additionally, participants noted that a healthy diet is equally as vital as exercising, minimizing stress, being in a strong financial situation and having a successful career.
Four out of five said eating smaller portions is their weight management method of choice, whereas three-quarters prefer to track and increase physical activity.
Consuming more fruits and vegetables was the leading effort reported. Among the participants polled, 31% began eating more fruits and vegetables in the past year, while 51% started more than two years ago.
Other reported steps towards a healthy diet included: cutting calories by drinking water or no-calorie beverages, eating more foods with whole grains, consuming smaller portions, cutting back on added sugars, avoiding foods higher in solid fats and substituting low-fat or nonfat alternatives for full-fat dairy products.
Half of Americans try to avoid added sugars and salt, and slightly more try to consume fiber and whole grains.
Digging deeper into planning, preparing and shopping for meals, three out of five survey respondents spend some time planning each meal, with 90% planning dinner in particular. In addition, 60% of participants prepare a shopping list as part of the meal planning process.
Nutrition fact panels and expiration dates are the most commonly reviewed information on food and beverage products. More than half of Americans polled sometimes refer to a nutrition label before consuming a food or beverage item, and 15% do so always or the majority of the time. Also, while 66% look at expiration dates, that is down from 82% last year.
In the grocery store, more than a third of consumers reported regularly buying food that is advertised as "natural" (37%) or "local" (35%), and 32% regularly buy products labeled as "organic."
When eating meals away from home, about half of all consumers (51%) use nutrition information such as calorie counts when eating out at restaurants, while 23% have noticed such information but don't pay attention to it, and 26% haven't noticed such information at all.
Food safety views
Each year, lack of confidence in the U.S. food supply climbs, even though two-thirds of Americans report still being confident.
Additionally, two out of five have given some thought to the safety of foods and beverages consumed, with women being more likely to be the most concerned.
Getting sick from a food item was a larger food safety concern than chemicals in food or packaging.
There is no denying that consumers are passionate about food and spend an abundant amount of time thinking and talking about food.
In the last six months, 47% of individuals surveyed reported that they talked about food and beverage choices but claimed that no emotional discussion took place. In contrast, one in four — mainly females and of a younger age group — did admit to participating in an emotional conversation about food.
"This indicates that, despite media coverage highlighting many controversial issues in the food and health environment, there is little debate surrounding these issues among the population at large," IFIC stated in the report.
A majority of survey participants listed health professionals as the most trusted source of accurate information on nutrition, physical activity and weight loss, followed distantly by health-focused websites, scientific journals and government agencies.
Interestingly, 5% or less said they seek advice on nutrition, physical activity and weight loss from food manufacturers, TV personalities, news media and social media (Figure 2).
When it comes to information on food safety, food ingredients and the way food is raised on the farm, government officials were ranked the highest among survey takers as a source for accurate information. Again, social media, news media and celebrities were considered the least credible sources. Interestingly, farmers and ranchers were not among the available options from which participants could choose.