Media drives consumer concern over food ingredients

Tuesday, 13 September, 2016

The dialogue around food, and perceived healthfulness or otherwise of certain ingredients, has gained momentum, with a US study showing that significant numbers of Americans have changed their minds or behaviours around food and nutrition issues, with the media acting as a top driver for change.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2016 Food and Health Survey, Food Decision 2016: The Impact of a Growing National Food Dialogue, found an average of 31% of Americans have changed their minds about specific dietary components, for better or worse. In most cases, media headlines and articles were at or near the top of the sources that altered consumers’ opinions.

Changing habits

The media were a top source that caused a view that enriched refined grains, saturated fat, added sugars and low-kilojoule sweeteners are less healthful. 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 behaviours based on what they learn. According to the survey, 44% read a book or article, or watched a movie or documentary, examining the food system and/or commonly held beliefs about diet. About a quarter of Americans either changed their food purchasing decisions or engaged with friends, family or colleagues based on what they read or viewed.

What's in it?

In the 2016 survey, 47% of Americans said they look at the ingredients list on foods or beverage packages when deciding what to purchase, up from 40% in 2015. What they are looking for is what isn’t in the food rather than what is in it, with 35% of Americans defining a ‘healthy’ food as one that does not contain (or has low levels of) certain components such as fat and sugar.

When given a list of attributes that describe a healthy eating style, 51% of consumers chose ‘the right mix of different foods’, followed by ‘limited or no artificial ingredients or preservatives’ (41%). However, when not given a list to select from, just 2% of consumers identified limited or no artificial ingredients or preservatives as a top consideration.

37% report limiting or avoiding packaged foods, with about one-third of those people citing artificial ingredients or preservatives (32%) or extra sugar, fat and salt (31%) as reasons why.

The price of sustainability

The number of Americans whose food and beverage purchasing decisions are impacted by sustainability also increased significantly (41% in 2016 vs 35% in 2015), although it continues to trail taste (84%), price (71%), healthfulness (64%) and convenience (52%) as purchase drivers.

73% of respondents think it’s important that food products be produced in a sustainable way. Sustainability aspects cited include conserving the natural habitat (44%), reducing pesticide use (43%) and ensuring an affordable food supply (37%). However, just 38% of all Americans are willing to pay more for food that is produced sustainably.

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