Americans are hungry for more information about their food, and the media are standing by with the spoon.
In the last year, significant numbers of Americans have changed their minds or behaviors around food and nutrition issues, and the media are a top driver of those changes, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation's 2016 Food and Health Survey, "Food Decision 2016: The Impact of a Growing National Food Dialogue."
"2016 is a big decision-making year for Americans," said IFIC Foundation President Kimberly Reed. "Not only do we have an upcoming presidential election involving more conversations with new voters, emerging technologies and changing demographics, we also see more factors influencing Americans' food decisions.
"Our 11th annual survey shows that the food dialogue has gained momentum over the past year, with factors including health status, gender, income, education and age influencing Americans' views on the food they eat."
The survey asked whether Americans' opinions had changed about a number of dietary components. An average of 31 percent changed their minds about at least one of them, for better or worse. In most cases, media headlines and articles were at or near the top of the sources that altered consumers' opinions.
The media were a top source that caused a less healthful view of enriched refined grains, saturated fat, added sugars and low-calorie sweeteners. Whole grains, protein from plant sources and natural sugars were among the dietary components that gained a more healthful opinion from consumers based on media headlines.
Americans also want to know more about their food and are changing their behaviors based on what they learn. According to the survey, 44 percent read a book or article, or watched a movie or documentary, examining the food system and/or commonly held beliefs about diet. About one-quarter of Americans either changed their food purchasing decisions (26 percent) or engaged with friends, family, or coworkers (23 percent) based on what they read or viewed.
"Healthy" vs. "Natural"
This year, 47 percent of Americans said they look at the ingredients list on foods or beverage packages when deciding what to purchase, up from 40 percent in 2015.
When Americans define what makes a food healthy, it's becoming more about what isn't in a food rather than what is in it. Thirty-five percent of Americans define a "healthy" food as one that does not contain (or has low levels) of certain components such as fat and sugar, the top response when asked in an open-ended question.
When given a list of attributes that describe a "healthy eating style," 51 percent of consumers chose "the right mix of different foods," followed by "limited or no artificial ingredients or preservatives" (41 percent). However, it should be noted that just 2 percent of consumers identified limited or no artificial ingredients or preservatives as a top consideration when not given a list. "Moderation/serving size and portions" topped the open-ended responses (26 percent) for healthy eating styles, followed by "includes certain foods I define as healthy" (25 percent).
The definitions of healthy and natural foods are also being conflated. According to the survey, "natural" food is most often associated with having no preservatives or additives (29 percent of respondents), having ingredients that come straight from nature and whole foods (19 percent) or having no artificial ingredients or flavors (17 percent).
How Americans are trying to get healthier
According to the survey, 57 percent of Americans are trying to lose weight, with 23 percent trying to lose up to 10 pounds and 34 percent trying to lose 10 or more pounds, and they are making small changes to do so. Seventy-eight percent of Americans said they were likely to be more active throughout the day to help with their weight management, and 72 percent would spend more time exercising.
One-quarter of Americans have changed their diets in the past year, most notably by eating more fruits and vegetables, making "small changes," and drinking water or low- and no-calorie beverages—although those who were already in better health were more likely to report positive changes than other respondents.
Local = Trustworthy
If food is grown regionally or served at a local establishment, consumers are more likely to trust the safety of that food. More than 70 percent of consumers trust the safety of food produced in their region of the country, while just 24 percent trust the safety of food from another country. Consumers were also more likely (55 percent vs. 49 percent) to trust the safety of food from a local restaurant than the safety of food from a national chain restaurant.
"For the past 11 years, the IFIC Foundation has provided some of the most wide-ranging and compelling insights and trends about Americans' attitudes and behaviors around food, health, and nutrition," said Kimberly Reed, president of the IFIC Foundation.
The results are derived from an online survey of 1,003 Americans ages 18 to 80, conducted March 17 to March 24, 2016. Results were weighted to ensure that they are reflective of the American population, as seen in the 2015 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.