More than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are beginning to experience a taste of what post-pandemic life might look like as their shopping and eating habits return to their pre-pandemic patterns. At the same time, there are alarming signs of inequalities and disparities within our food system. These are among the findings of the “2021 Food & Health Survey,” conducted every year since 2006 by the International Food Information Council (IFIC).
“After more than a year of tremendous upheaval caused by a historic pandemic, Americans are craving stability and a return to normalcy when it comes to their food decisions,” said Joseph Clayton, CEO of IFIC. “The ‘2021 Food & Health Survey’ reflects those desires, but it also provides evidence of trends from during and before the pandemic that are proving to be more durable. This year’s survey also offers interesting new insights into consumers’ feelings about their communities, as well as their obligations to the environment.”
Starting to find a sense of normalcy
IFIC has undertaken intensive consumer research on the effects of the pandemic since its earliest days. Last year’s survey, which was conducted in April 2020, revealed dramatic changes in how we ate, prepared and shopped for foods as a result of COVID-19.
This year’s survey shows that many of those changes have begun to subside. For instance, 85% of Americans a year ago reported having experienced some change to their eating or food preparation habits because of the pandemic. In the “2021 Food & Health Survey,” however, that number fell to 72%.
The survey also found significant decreases—sometimes by as much as half—in behaviors that had changed because of the pandemic. One year ago, 60% of consumers said they were cooking at home more than usual; this year, that number fell to 47%. Similarly, the number of Americans over that same period who reported engaging in other behaviors more often than usual dropped precipitously: snacking more (32% in 2020 vs. 18% in 2021), washing fresh produce more (30% in 2020 vs. 22% in 2021), thinking about food more (27% in 2020 vs. 13% in 2021), eating more in general (20% in 2020 vs. 11% in 2021) and eating more premade meals from the pantry or freezer (19% in 2020 vs. 11% in 2021).
At the same time, the survey suggests that some changes Americans made last year have continued or even accelerated in 2021. For example, 27% of Americans in 2019 said they shopped for food online at least once a month. That number increased to 33% in 2020 in the early days of COVID-19. But a year later, in 2021, it climbed even higher to 42%. Similarly, 13% of adults in 2019 said they shopped for food online at least weekly, a number that decreased slightly to 11% in 2020 but jumped to 20% this year. Younger consumers, African Americans and parents tended to grocery shop online more frequently than their counterparts.
But if there have been changes in behavior, there are also signs of changes in attitude. Respondents were asked to select their top three choices from a list of what they are most excited about post-pandemic. The top three responses centered around grocery shopping or going to a restaurant, with nearly one in two Americans citing not having to wear a mask when shopping or going to a restaurant as what they are most looking forward to when normal life resumes (46%). Not worrying as much about COVID-19 while shopping or eating at a restaurant (44%) and going to restaurants more often (39%) rounded out the top responses.
The need that still exists
Despite these trends indicating a return to routine, the pandemic has exposed some significant disparities within our food system. This year, the survey sought to examine some potential markers of food insecurity, a topic that is at the forefront of pandemic-induced food challenges. For instance, 15% of Americans said they often purchased less-healthy food options than they otherwise would have because they did not have enough money for healthier options. A similar number said they often worried about whether their food would run out before they had enough money to buy more (14%), delayed purchasing or purchased less food because of other expenses like rent or utility bills (14%) or purchased less food overall (13%). Three-quarters (75%) of those respondents who have experienced food insecurity said the pandemic played at least somewhat of a role in those decisions.
The survey asked those same food-insecurity questions in 2018, and the results overall were mostly similar to 2021. But when drilling down, the 2021 survey revealed some especially alarming trends over the past three years for African Americans.
Some measures of food insecurity for African Americans roughly doubled from 2018 to 2021: 22% said they often purchased less food overall because of money concerns (vs. 12% in 2018), 20% often worried their food would run out (vs. 12% in 2018), and 21% often delayed purchasing food due to other expenses (vs. 10% in 2018). In a similar vein, 25% of African Americans in 2021 said they often purchased less-healthy options due to financial concerns, an increase from 19% in 2018.
Healthier attitudes about health
Even with the troubling food insecurity trends, there are some encouraging signs around health and diets. Almost three-quarters of respondents (73%) said they are confident in their ability to choose healthy foods. Americans’ view of what constitutes healthy food also took on a more positive tone in 2021. In 2016, consumers identified healthy food based more on the components it lacks (e.g., fats, sugars) than the components it has. But this year, the numbers flipped: 27% now say healthy food is defined by the presence of “good” components like fruits, vegetables and nutrients (up from 17% in 2016), and 25% defined it by the absence of “bad” components (down from 35% in 2016). Another 25% defined healthy food as being simply “good for you” (up from 18% in 2016).
This positive attitude towards health can also be seen in Americans’ approach to their diets. The number of Americans who said in 2021 that they followed a specific eating pattern or diet at any time in the past year was 39%. But people’s reasons for following a diet in 2021 were less about how they look than in previous years. Losing weight remains the top reason for following a diet or eating pattern, at 38% of respondents, but that was down from 47% in 2020. Along the same lines, just 29% said improving their physical appearance was their top reason for following a diet, down sharply from 39% in 2020.
In addition, awareness of the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” (DGA) continues to rise, which many believe gives them the knowledge to eat healthy and make smart food choices. Last year revealed a dramatic increase in familiarity with the DGA over the previous decade, with the number of adults knowing at least a fair amount about them rising from 23% in 2010 to 41% in 2020. That number rose even more in 2021, with 46% now saying they are familiar with the DGA, perhaps in line with the recent release of the 2020-2025 edition of the Guidelines.
Influence of environmental and social sustainability
As the pandemic recedes as a factor in people’s beliefs and decisions about food, other influences are playing a role. According to the survey, 42% of consumers said they believe their individual choices about food and beverage purchases have a moderate or significant impact on the environment, and 53% said that if it were easier to understand the actual environmental impact of their choices, this issue would have a greater influence on their food decisions.
One-quarter (24%) of respondents said meat and poultry have the biggest negative impact out of food sources and products on the environment, followed by bottled beverages (14%) and fresh fruits/vegetables (8%). Tied at 7% were seafood, frozen foods, dairy, and candy, chocolate and other sweets. In addition, one in four adults (24%) reported eating more protein from plant sources over the previous year.
For the first time, the survey began to address the issue of social sustainability. Fifty-nine percent of respondents say that it is at least somewhat important that the food products they buy and consume be produced in ways that are committed to the fair and equitable treatment of workers such as farm hands, factory workers, retail workers and food service staff.
But the importance people place on this issue varies greatly among some demographic groups. Parents with children under 18 years old are far more likely than those without kids under the age of 18 to view fair and equitable treatment as at least somewhat important (69% vs. 56%). Similar trends are seen between African Americans and non-Hispanic White consumers (68% vs. 56%) and between those who said they made community-supporting efforts on social/food issues in 2020 and those who did not (67% vs. 35%).
A spirit of generosity
Given the significant amount of social, emotional and economic upheaval that Americans have experienced in the past year, the 2021 Food & Health Survey asked survey takers about efforts around food issues in their communities and found that the vast majority of Americans are lending a helping hand: 75% of respondents said they made an effort to help their community in the past year.
Leading the way, 44% of adults cited that they supported local restaurants and 42% said that they tipped restaurant servers or food delivery people more. In addition, 25% bought food from local farmers, 21% shopped or dined at minority-owned restaurants or grocery stores, 20% donated to or volunteered at a food charity or food bank and 18% helped people in their community who needed assistance to get food or groceries.