The International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) recently released its seventh annual Food & Health Survey, which offered some interesting insights into the opinions American consumers have when it comes to what they eat, their health habits, and how they approach food safety.
In light of the ongoing obesity epidemic, the positive takeaway was that Americans are indeed interested in food and health-related issues, with nearly all saying that they have given at least a little thought to the healthfulness of their diet, physical activity, and the safety of their food. Nearly all of those polled reported trying to improve at least one of their eating habits.
However, the mountain of oftentimes contradictory information touting and/or condemning various nutrients has seemingly left many consumers scratching their collective heads over what to believe—in fact IFIC said one of the most telling facts about consumer confusion was the statistic that more than half of the American polled for the Survey said it was easier to figure out their income taxes than it was to figure out what they should and shouldn’t eat to be healthier.
Nine out of 10 Americans described their overall health as good or better, a significant increase from previous years. The majority (60%) reported their health to be either excellent or very good, and only nine percent reported that they were in fair or poor health. Despite their belief that they are in good health, many Americans recognize there is room to improve their diet, with only about a quarter reporting that their diet is either extremely or very healthful and about 21% reporting their diet is not at all or not too healthful. Nearly all Americans reported that they were trying to improve at least one aspect of their eating habits, and nearly nine in 10 (87%) had tried to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Consumers also reported being more apt to consider calories and various dietary components (such as whole grains, fiber, sugars, salt and fat) when making food purchasing decisions, and many cited weight management and other health factors as the reason why they considered those components. More than half of Americans (55%) said that were trying to lose weight—a significant increase from 2011 (43%).
The majority of Americans (71%) estimated their daily calorie needs, but 64% of them estimated incorrectly, with nearly half (49%) under estimating. IFIC said only about one in seven Americans (15%) accurately estimated the number of calories they need to maintain their weight. More than half of Americans polled were unable to provide an estimate of how many calories they burn in a day (52%) or offer inaccurate estimates (19% said 1,000 calories or less).
Calories proved to be a real gray area of understanding among those polled, with only 30% correctly believing that all sources of calories playan equal role in weight gain. Twenty percent believed calories from sugars were most likely to cause weight gain, while 19% believed that calories from carbohydrates were most likely to cause weight gain, and 18% believed it was calories from fats.
Fats, Sodium, Carbs, Sugars & Protein
Though taste continued to reign as the chief purchasing influencer, most Americans reported being on top of their fat intake. Three out of four (75%) said they chose products that are lower in total fat at least sometimes. Two out of three Americans (67%) said they try to eat as little fat as possible, even though a large majority understood that different fats had different impacts on health. Only about 1 in 5 (22%) believed all fats have the same impact on health, yet many are limiting or avoiding several types of fats. While 49% said they were trying to avoid transfat, 32% also said they were trying to limit the more healthful mono- and poly-unsaturated fats.
A majority of Americans also reported keeping close tabs of the sodium content of their packaged foods, with the desire to limit or avoid it entirely. Eight out of 10 Americans (78%) took at least one of six specified actions to limit their sodium consumption, with “limiting the amount of salt I add to my food” being the most cited action, with concerns of sodium influencing blood pressure as a driving factor.
When it came to carbohydrate and sugar consumption, 51% of Americans said they were trying to limit or avoid sugars. Though feelings toward high fructose corn syrup were roughly split evenly, the majority of those polled also said they didn’t pay attention to complex (60%) or refined (62%) carbohydrates when making packaged food or beverage decisions.
Nearly six out of 10 Americans said they also considered a food or beverage’s protein content as they made the decision to buy. Americans largely understood the varied benefits of protein, with 88% recognizing that it helped build muscle. Eighty percent believed that it is part of a balanced diet, 60% agreed that it helped people feel full, and 60% indicated that a high protein diet can help with weight loss. While 84% of Americans believed that it is easy to incorporate protein into their diet, a quarter of Americans also believed that these foods are too expensive to consume as much as they would like.
Making Sense of Nutritional Guidance
How Americans get informed about the foods and beverages they purchase proved to be another telling gray area. Three out of four consumers (76%) felt that changes in nutritional guidance made it hard to know what to believe. When asked how they determined whether to believe new information about food and health, Americans indicated they would follow up and do their own research before they believe it (26%), would judge information based on the source and if it is from an organization they trust (24%), and would simply use their own judgment and will not believe it if it seems too good to be true (14%). Nearly six in 10 Americans (57%) believed that online and mobile tools could help them live healthier lifestyles.
On-package information deemed most important to American consumers included the expiration date (76%) and the Nutrition Facts panel (66%). Those two pieces of information have consistently been at the top of the information consumers seek from the food package; however, the expiration date jumped significantly from 2011 (63%) to overtake the Nutrition Facts panel, IFIC said.
Half of consumers reported looking at the ingredients list, the serving size/amount per container, and calorie or nutrition information icons displayed on the front of the package.
When making decisions about buying packaged food or beverages, at least six in 10 Americans report considering calories (71%), whole grains (67%), fiber (62%), sugars in general (60%), sodium/salt (60%), and/or fats/oils (60%).
One final takeaway was that 54% of Americans said that they would rather just enjoy their food than worry too much about what’s in it.
For more information about the IFIC Food and Health Survey, follow this link.