Washington/IFIC -- The number of American consumers who consider healthfulness when purchasing their food and beverages has shown a significant uptick in the past two years. That is among the findings of the IFIC Foundation’s 2014 Food and Health Survey.

Given the perceived volume and intensity of conversations and debates about food, the Foundation also asked whether consumers had had an “emotional conversation” about food in the preceding six months. Fewer than one in four respondents (23%) said that they had.

American consumers’ perceptions and behaviors regarding the healthfulness of their diets and level of physical activity are among the survey’s most encouraging findings. While taste and price consistently have been the top two factors that impact consumers’ food and beverage purchases (90% and 73% respectively), healthfulness in 2014 almost entirely closed the gap with price, rising from 61% of consumers in 2012 to 71% this year, a 10 percentage-point increase. 

Beneath the surface, certain subpopulations saw greater relative increases than others. Consumers aged 18-34, who cite healthfulness as a driver of food and beverage purchases, increased from 55% in 2013 to 66% in 2014, significantly narrowing the gap with other age groups.

The 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 impacted by healthfulness, up from 61% in 2013.

As in previous years, consumers report other areas where they are trying to improve the healthfulness of their diets. More than four out of five (83%) report that they have tried to eat more fruits and vegetables either within the past year or for more than a year. Some 79% say they have cut calories by drinking water or low- and no-calorie beverages, and 72% are eating more whole grains. In addition, four in five report that they are trying either to lose weight (54%) or maintain their weight (25%).

Topping the list of what respondents believe to be the most effective weight-management strategy is tracking and increasing the amount of time of physical activity at 27%, followed closely by eating smaller portions at 26%, and eating smaller and more frequent meals or snacks at 23%.

Consumers also evaluated which sources they trusted most for information about nutrition, physical activity, and weight loss. Health professionals were far and away the top choice (50%, 53%, and 59% respectively). Health-focused websites follow behind (15%, 17%, and 14%), and scientific journals (11%, 11%, and 9%).  No other source rated in double digits. Social media, news media, and TV personalities were in the low single-digits across all three information categories.

When consumers rated their priorities in life, the importance of a healthful diet often ranked either the same as or more important than other major priorities. The percentage of consumers who said the following priorities were “about the same as” or “less important than” than a healthful diet: spending time with loved ones (48%), minimizing stress (58%), having a healthy financial situation (62%), getting enough exercise (67%), feeling fulfilled in their jobs (73%), and having an active social life (82%). 

“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, MS, RD, LD, FADA, senior vice president for nutrition and food safety at the International Food Information Council Foundation. “If perceptions translate into actions, the impact on the health and wellness of our nation could be significant and long-lasting.”

Emotional Conversations
The 2014 Food and Health Survey attempted to gauge the level of emotions in conversations around food.

Public dialogue reviews conducted by the IFIC Foundation (independent of the Food and Health Survey) suggest growing intensity both online and in traditional media in conversations about food and the food production system, particularly among those with negative perceptions.

However, given that only 23% of respondents report having had an “emotional conversation” about food in the past six months, it could suggest that those who are dominating the discussions and perpetuating negativity about food are a distinct minority. Half of respondents (50%) report having conversations about food that are not emotional.

“While it is a classic example of the most sensational and entertaining reports getting attention, our data show the vast majority of consumers are not swayed by the rhetoric,” said David B. Schmidt, president and CEO of the IFIC Foundation. “Most consumers are making health a conscious decision and trust those experts and organizations with the most authoritative training and expertise.”

Additional findings from the IFIC Foundation’s 2014 Food and Health Survey:

Confidence in food safety: While a solid majority remain confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply, there nevertheless has been a steady erosion since 2012. This year, 66% of consumers are at least somewhat confident in the food supply, while 30% are not too confident or not at all confident. In 2012, the former figure stood at 78%, while the latter stood at 18%, an overall negative swing of 24 points over three years.

When it comes to information about food safety, food ingredients, and the way foods and beverages are farmed and produced, government agencies are consumers’ go-to source, chosen as most trusted by 39%, 26%, and 28% respectively. Social media and TV personalities were considered the most-trusted resource for all three information categories by only 2% or fewer consumers. The news media rated 5%, 3%, and 12% respectively.

Planning what we eat: When it comes to what consumers use on a regular basis to help plan what they eat, shopping lists ranked the highest at 59%, followed by coupons (53%), in-store discounts (49%), recipes (45%) and meal plans (24%).

Checking the label: Between 2013 and 2014, there were decreases -- some of them substantial -- in the categories of information consumers say they look for on the label of a food or beverage. “Expiration date” still leads the list at 66%, returning to traditional levels after a spike last year to 82%. The percentage of consumers who check the Nutrition Facts Panel was relatively unchanged this year at 65%, along with the ingredients list at 52% and calorie/nutrition information at 42%.

Significant decreases in label-reading behavior were found with serving sizes and amount per container (44% in 2014 vs. 55% in 2013), brand name (35% in 2014 vs. 53% in 2013), cooking instructions (32% vs. 45%), and statements about nutrition benefits (30% vs. 43%).

Consumption of nutrients and food components: The survey also revealed what nutrients or food components consumers are trying to limit or increase consumption of. The components and the number of respondents who are trying to get a certain amount or as much as possible of them are: fiber (53%), whole grains (53%), protein (50%), calcium (36%), omega-3 fats (21%), potassium (19%), and probiotics (18%).

In terms of those nutrients or components consumers are trying to limit or avoid entirely: sodium/salt (53%), sugars in general (50%), calories (48%), fats/oils (29%), caffeine (31%), and mono/polyunsaturated fats (26%).

Dining out: 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.

Sugars in the diet: While still a majority, significant declines were seen among respondents who believe moderate amounts of sugar can be part of an overall healthful diet (74% in 2014 vs. 84% in 2013) and those who believe people with diabetes can include some foods with sugar as part of their total diet (54% in 2014 vs. 71% in 2013). Half of consumers (51%) report that they are getting “pretty close to” or less than what they believe is the appropriate amount of sugars in their diets.

Caffeine: Three out of five consumers (60%) agree at least somewhat that they know the amount of caffeine in the foods and beverages they consume. On the other hand, when asked if they believe an 8-ounce cup of home-brewed coffee has roughly the same amount of caffeine as an 8-ounce energy drink, only 18% correctly answered “true,” while 45% answered “false.”

Sustainability: Over the past year, 62% of respondents say they have given at least a little thought to the environmental sustainability of their foods and beverages, with 35% giving it no thought. That’s down slightly from both 2012 and 2013, when 66% gave sustainability at least a little thought and 30% gave it no thought.

“Natural,” “organic,” and “local”: More than a third of consumers report regularly buying food that is labeled as “natural” (37%) or “local” (35%), with 32% who regularly buy products advertised as “organic.”

The 2014 Food and Health Survey was fielded by Greenwald & Associates of Washington, D.C., between March 26 and April 7, 2014, and involved 1,005 Americans aged 18 to 80. Results were weighted to match the U.S. Census based on age, education, gender, race/ethnicity, and region to be nationally reflective.