THEY say talk is cheap, and economists are well aware that consumer survey data and actual purchasing decisions are two distinctly different things.
While consumer preference surveys continue to show that shoppers are keenly aware of key food issues such as genetically modified ingredients, price remains the most important driver of their food buying choices.
In the August edition of Oklahoma State University's monthly "Food Demand Survey" (FooDS), economist Jayson Lusk found that consumers again cited price as their primary concern.
"Consumer values remained similar to those in past months, with an increase in perceived importance of price and nutrition, which remained top values, along with taste and safety," Lusk reported. "As in previous months, consumers reported that their main challenge faced this month was finding affordable foods to fit within their budget."
While consumers listed "avoiding certain nutrients or ingredients" and "avoiding pesticides, added hormones and antibiotics" among their top concerns, both factors were less of an issue in August than in July, falling in importance by 7.13% and 2.66%, respectively.
By contrast, "finding affordable food" increased in importance by 0.64%, while "finding convenient alternatives" and "losing weight" rose in importance from last month by 4.06% and 3.22%, respectively.
Lusk said of all the food values listed in FooDS, consumers ranked finding time to cook at home and finding food their children will eat last, consistent with previous months' findings.
The survey's findings on the importance of price and taste are perhaps an example of the reality that consumers often say one thing but, when it comes to actual purchases, do another.
In a series of questions related to food labeling requirements, a majority of consumers said food marketers should be required to label products produced with "added growth hormones or antibiotics" and those containing genetically modified ingredients.
"Similar to last month, more than half of the participants reported that they support mandatory labeling because 'consumers have a right to know, regardless of the cost,'" Lusk said.
Fifty-three percent of FooDS respondents took that position, with another 32% supporting labeling products made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) "only if it doesn't raise prices or cause lawsuits."
Despite ongoing media coverage of GMO labeling, the issue of growth hormones and antibiotics actually drew a stronger reaction from survey respondents, with 66.2% supporting a mandatory label, compared with 53.4% in favor of a GMO label.
Among a grab bag of food issues, consumers selected Escherichia coli, salmonella and GMOs as the issues most discussed in the news over the two weeks prior to the survey. They listed E. coli, salmonella, hormones and antibiotics as their top concerns when purchasing food.
Animal housing issues were among the items that saw the largest decline in both consumer awareness and consumer concern. For "battery cages," awareness fell 4.05% from July, while concern fell 3.8%; awareness of "gestation crates" fell 2.97%.
In addition to Lusk's findings, a new white paper from marketing firm Sullivan Higdon & Sink (SHS) suggests that a growing percentage of consumers want to know more, are willing to spend more and are paying more attention to the foods they purchase and prepare.
Based on responses from more than 1,500 consumers from diverse demographic backgrounds, the study found that 53% of consumers say they are willing to pay more for local food.
"A key finding is the variation among the three shopper groups: organic, local and natural," said Erika Chance, a senior researcher with the SHS FoodThink division. "While it might be tempting to lump them all into the same audience, they've demonstrated that they each have different drivers and deal breakers."
For example, among organic shoppers, 65% said they try to eat organic whenever possible. Three-fourths of "natural" consumers, meanwhile, claim to be good or excellent cooks.
Among the biggest challenges for food companies trying to reach these consumer audiences is the fact that definitions of terms such as "local" and "natural" are neither universal nor uniform.
"We discovered that despite more shoppers choosing organic, local and natural (food products), many consumers are still confused as to what defines these labels — indicating a prime opportunity to educate as interest builds," Chance said.
Looking at the white paper's top-line findings, the importance of organic foods has lost considerable ground to "natural" and "local," which are both more nebulous in definition than organic since that, at least, has a set of requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program.
SHS found that buying natural foods is very important to 58% of the population, compared with just 36% who said as much about organic foods (Figure).
Taken further, 61% said they want to purchase food with "no additives," 57% want "no hormones" and 56% want "no antibiotics." Roughly the same proportion of consumers want to purchase foods that are locally sourced or grown.
These sentiments present a problem, however — a problem one Dartmouth University professor calls "chemophobia," or an "irrational fear of natural and synthetic chemicals that pose no risk to our health."
Chemistry professor Gordon Gribble, whose research recently appeared in the journal Food Security, said small doses of chemicals in modern food are inherent, typically harmless and often highly beneficial. In fact, he contended that most people do not know they are routinely exposed to a host of compounds in nontoxic concentrations in the air they breathe and the foods they eat — and that it's okay.
"Our food is peppered with natural compounds such as organohalogens, dioxins, aflatoxins and many others," he explained. "Food is chemistry beyond our immediate control, including those synthetic chemicals that are deemed to be artificial and should not be found in 'safe' food."
Instead of focusing on pesticides, antibiotics and dioxins, Gribble argued that consumers and food regulators should focus on pathogens, bacteria and fungi that cause numerous cases of foodborne illness each year and lead to hospitalization or death.
"The word 'chemical' became a dirty word despite the fact that everything we see, smell and touch is chemical," he said. "While chemical scares invariably appear on the front page, the follow-up stories that often refute the initial scares never do."