More than one in three U.S. consumers are following a specific diet or eating pattern, and they are increasingly averse to carbohydrates and sugar, according to the 13th Annual Food and Health Survey, released today by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.
Given a list of diets to choose from, or the option to write in a response, 36 percent of Americans reported following a specific eating pattern or diet within the past year, about two-and-a-half times the number (14 percent) from 2017 when it was an open-ended question.
The top eating pattern cited was intermittent fasting (10 percent). Diets considered at least somewhat restrictive of carbohydrates were well-represented, including Paleo (7 percent), low-carb (5 percent), Whole30 (5 percent), high-protein (4 percent), and ketogenic/high-fat (3 percent). Younger consumers (age 18 to 34) were more likely to follow a specific eating pattern or diet than those 35 and above.
More Americans than in previous years blame carbs, and specifically sugars, for weight gain. While sugars continue to be the most cited cause of weight gain (33 percent), carbohydrates ranked second at 25 percent, up from 20 percent in 2017. Both of those numbers are the highest since 2011. Fats (16 percent), protein (3 percent) and “all sources” (17 percent) lagged behind when placing blame.
Cardiovascular health is top desired benefit, but consumers don’t know how to achieve it
Almost all consumers are interested in getting specific health benefits from food or nutrients. However, the top two desired health benefits in 2018 changed places from 2017: This year, 20 percent ranked cardiovascular health as their top desired benefit, followed by weight loss or weight management at 18 percent and energy at 13 percent. In 2017, those numbers were 16 percent, 32 percent and 14 percent respectively.
But consumers don’t know, and remain confused, about how to achieve these desired outcomes; only 38 percent are able to name a food they would seek out to help with their top health concern. Protein was most frequently identified (10 percent), followed by vegetables (7 percent), vitamins and minerals (5 percent) and fruits (4 percent).
“This dietary disconnect—the inability to connect specific foods and nutrients to desired health outcomes—illustrates the need for stronger, clearer, nutrition education based on the best available evidence,” said Joseph Clayton, CEO of the IFIC Foundation.
Eight in 10 (80 percent) consumers said there is a lot of conflicting information about what foods to eat or avoid, a number similar to 2017. Of those people, 59 percent say that conflicting information makes them doubt their food choices—but the data show a troubling disparity among ethnicities, with those who doubt their choices as a result of conflicting information rising to 78 percent of Hispanic consumers.
Organics, “natural” and sustainability grow as priorities
“Food values” continue their growth as a factor in consumers’ decision-making, with organics increasingly popular in purchasing choices. When shopping for foods and beverages, 29 percent buy those labeled “organic,” up from 25 percent in 2017. The increase is even more significant when people eat out: 20 percent said they eat at restaurants with foods and beverages advertised as organic compared to 14 percent last year.
Similarly, 37 percent of shoppers bought foods and beverages billed as “natural,” up from 31 percent in 2017, and 26 percent of consumers ate at restaurants with “natural” food and beverage options compared to 23 percent in 2017.
The importance of sustainability in food production also loomed larger in 2018, with 59 percent of consumers saying it’s important that the foods they purchase and consume be produced in a sustainable way, jumping up from 50 percent in 2017.
Out of those 59 percent who believe sustainability is important, their top two most important individual factors of sustainability increased significantly over 2017: 33 percent in 2018 said reducing pesticides was their top priority, up from 27 percent in 2017, while ensuring an affordable food supply increased to 16 percent in 2018 from 10 percent last year.
Consumers favorable to the familiar, averse to the “artificial”
The key drivers behind consumers’ food and beverage purchases are largely unchanged in 2018. “Taste” still reigns supreme (as it has every year the Food and Health Survey has been conducted), with 81 percent saying it has at least some impact in their buying decisions, followed by familiarity (a new addition in this year’s survey, at 65 percent), price (64 percent), healthfulness (61 percent), convenience (54 percent) and sustainability (39 percent).
Perhaps unsurprisingly in the current communications environment, consumers are averse to artificial ingredients, at least compared to the alternatives. When asked to choose between two versions of the same product—an older one that includes artificial ingredients and a newer version that does not—seven in 10 (69 percent) chose the product with no artificial ingredients, while one-third (32 percent) chose the one containing artificial ingredients.
We also asked those who preferred a product with no artificial ingredients how much they would be willing to pay versus a similar product with artificial ingredients that cost $1.00: 62 percent would pay up to 10 percent more ($1.10) for the product without artificial ingredients; 42 percent would pay up to 50 percent more ($1.50); and 22 percent would pay double the price ($2).Context is also key in how consumers perceive the healthfulness of two products with otherwise identical nutritional content. When asked to identify the healthier of two products with the same Nutrition Facts Panel, 40 percent perceived one labeled “non-GMO” as healthier vs. 15 percent for one with genetically engineered ingredients, and 33 percent believed a product with a shorter ingredient list was healthier than one with more ingredients (15 percent).
But a little of the luster is off the “fresh food” halo from last year, at least compared to frozen foods. A significant change from 2017 was that 41 percent in 2018 perceived a fresh product to be healthier than a frozen one, which dropped from 47 percent last year, while 10 percent (in both 2017 and 2018) believed frozen products were healthier.
Trust in government agencies grows, reliance on multitude of sources for nutrition information
This year and last year, we asked consumers to rate the sources where they often get information about what to eat or avoid, as well as how much they trust those sources.
Among 14 sources listed, government agencies recorded the biggest increases, far and away, in both measures. In 2018, 19 percent of consumers said they often get such information from a government agency, nearly double the 11 percent in 2017, and 38 percent said they trust government agencies as an information source, up from 25 percent in 2017. (One caveat: This year’s question gave specific examples of agencies—USDA, EPA, FDA and CDC—whereas last year’s only mentioned government agencies in general.)
Friends/family members and personal healthcare professionals tied at 30 percent as the most relied-upon sources of information; however, healthcare professionals are far more trusted (66 percent) than friends and family (26 percent).
“Consumers continue to rely heavily on nutrition information sources they admit they don’t trust,” said Alexandra Lewin-Zwerdling, vice president for research and partnerships at the IFIC Foundation. “This may speak to the public confusion we have consistently found on topics of nutrition and food safety.”
In a couple of examples of a generational information gap, Americans age 65 and older were more likely (76 percent) to trust a registered dietitian compared to adults age 35 and younger (65 percent). In addition, when asked which source of information most influenced their opinion on food safety issues, 44 percent of those age 65 and older cited news articles or headlines, while only 16 percent of those age 18 to 34 agreed.
Our dinner plates don’t match “MyPlate”
What Americans believe the experts recommend about which foods should fill an adult’s dinner plate isn’t too far off from the actual guidance from USDA’s “MyPlate.” But when it comes to what we actually eat … well, that’s a different story.
USDA’s MyPlate recommends that our plates are about half fruits and vegetables, with the rest of the plate divided up by grains (half of which should be whole grains) and protein, with dairy represented by a separate circle next to the plate. When consumers were asked which foods they believe experts recommend should fill our plates, they were on the mark with vegetables (30 percent) and fruits (21 percent), while protein (29 percent) and grains (20 percent) made up the balance.
What we really eat diverges from the recommendations, with protein leading the way at 38 percent, followed by vegetables (29 percent), grains (21 percent) and fruits (12 percent). About half (48 percent) said they include dairy often or always; only 2 percent said they never include dairy products.
The results are derived from an online survey of 1,009 Americans ages 18 – 80, conducted March 12 to March 26, 2018. Results were weighted to ensure that they are reflective of the American population, as seen in the 2017 Current Population Survey. Specifically, they were weighted by age, education, gender, race/ethnicity and region. The survey was conducted by Greenwald & Associates, using ResearchNow’s consumer panel.
Source: International Food Information Council Foundation