CONSUMERS are more aware of healthy food and the concepts behind "healthy eating" than ever before, but recent research suggests that more knowledge may not be enough to drive food purchasing decisions.
According to the Food Marketing Institute's (FMI) 21st annual "Shopping for Health" study, shoppers frequently cited cost and lack of motivation as common obstacles to better eating.
"Consumers are increasingly aware of the health-conscious choices offered to them in the grocery aisles," Cathy Polley, vice president of health and wellness and executive director of the FMI Foundation, said. "The food retail industry also provides multiple channels of nutrition education, witnessed in the emergence of in-store dietitians and targeted programs that promote healthy meals."
Even so, increased awareness has not led to action, in many cases. Sixty-two percent of shoppers surveyed in the FMI study agreed that they do not eat as healthfully as they would like because it "costs too much to eat healthy foods."
Food purchasers feel that they have a better understanding of healthy eating options, with the percentage of shoppers who feel confused about which foods are healthy and which foods are not falling 16 percentage points since the 2007 study. However, 60% of shoppers said it is too hard to change their eating habits and are still searching for motivation to do so.
"Shoppers feel cost is a barrier to healthy eating and need further information to understand that healthy food is not expensive and provides a good value," said Peter Smith, manager of consumer insights for Rodale Inc., FMI's partner in the study. "In addition to education about the benefits of eating healthily, shoppers would benefit from opportunities to sample great-tasting healthy foods to help change their negative taste perceptions."
Those perceptions, it seems, are a significant part of the challenge in helping consumers make better eating choices. The study found that while 75% of shoppers read nutrition labels, fewer than 33% said they put a lot of effort into eating a healthy diet.
Shoppers identified kicking the junk food habit as their top strategy for consuming a healthier diet, with 56% of respondents saying they were switching to healthier snacks and 62% avoiding junk food. Fifty-two percent, meanwhile, said they were focused on consuming fewer calories at one time, and 59% said they were preparing healthy recipes at home.
While the strategies were popular among the different age groups surveyed, differences did exist: Baby Boomers and mature shoppers were 24-32% more likely to identify eating less junk food as their top healthy eating strategy than Gen X or Gen Y shoppers (Table 1). Gen Y shoppers, meanwhile, were more than twice as likely to identify eating locally grown foods as a strategy, and older shoppers were far more likely to say they were cooking more healthy dishes at home.
Age-related differences were likewise apparent in snack selection: Younger consumers were much more likely to identify consuming more protein and energy as a primary driver in their choices, while older shoppers were trying to reduce their intake of sugar, fat, sodium and carbohydrates (Table 2).
Sources for Tables: Prevention, Rodale Inc. and Food Marketing Institute.
Among the concerns identified in the study findings was a significant inability by parents to accurately assess their children's weight status. While adults could somewhat correctly gauge their own weight, FMI found that of those surveyed, only 10% of those with children ages 6-18 believed their children to be overweight. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics, however, indicates that 33% of children are actually overweight or obese.
The study explored how parents' healthy eating efforts extended to their children and found that while 88% of parents at least sometimes purchased nutritious food for their children, 91% said they buy food specifically because of their children's taste preferences. In fact, only 38% of parents said they always buy nutritious food for their kids.
The FMI findings were supported by a study commissioned by Cargill that was released July 15 during the Institute of Food Technologists' Food Expo in Chicago, Ill. Cargill's research group noted that parents' attitudes were the key drivers of food and beverage purchases for their children.
For example, parents are more likely to take a family approach to food purchases rather than seeking specific products or meals that are just for kids, with only one-third saying they prepare separate meals for their kids and 81% saying they purchase foods that appeal to the entire family.
In an attempt to determine which party compromised on food preferences in the "whole-family purchase" scheme, the study found that 89% of parents ask their kids to broaden their tastes, and 69% ask their kids to try more adult food.
Again, a generational difference existed: Millennial parents (ages 18-32) were more likely than older parents to say family appeal was important, suggesting that young consumers moving into parenthood are likely to adopt a family-wide shopping approach.
Cargill found that parents are largely dissatisfied with the healthfulness of most food categories that are popular with children, e.g., cereal, cookies, fruit juice, frozen pizzas and ice cream. The study found that within these food categories, parents' low level of satisfaction drives an increased intent to purchase healthier products in eight of nine categories studied.
Unlike in FMI's study of the general population, Cargill found that parents were more likely to seek positive attributes in their food and beverage purchases than to simply avoid products they perceive to be unhealthy. While 76% of parents said they check the nutrition information on unfamiliar products, the Cargill survey revealed that parents were less likely than the general public to check the nutrition facts panel on the back of the package, relying, instead, on nutrition highlights on the front of the package.
"Pressures on food and beverage companies to formulate more nutritious products for kids are coming from all angles: consumers, (non-governmental organizations) and government as well as many customers' own internal nutrition targets," said DeeAnn Roullier, market research manager at Cargill. "Those pressures are typically focused on limiting nutrients that are perceived to be less healthy, especially fat, sodium and sugar. Our research suggests that consumers are largely interested in position nutrition."