Observing lifestyles in multicultural, demographically diverse America is both fascinating and frustrating. One must observe both long-term consumer behaviors - trends - that last 10 years or longer as well as what I like to call trendlets, small changes that occur slowly but inexorably.
Trends in food processing that you can take to the bank are convenience, fighting obesity (100 calorie packaging/portion control is a successful strategy) and wellness/looking good for aging baby boomers. And don't forget the diet-equals-reward factor - indulgent/upscale foods are growing at the same rate as diet foods.
Productscan Online reports "upscale" was the leading claim in new food launches from June to August 2006, up from the same period the year before when both "natural" and "single serving" were featured on more products. Meanwhile, "recyclable" has become a popular claim, featured on more than 8 percent of new products, compared to just over 2 percent in the same timeframe in 2005.
"I just don't have time to prepare a meal," is the reason Americans give for spending more dollars on eating out, bringing foods home from foodservice venues, and purchasing convenient products from the supermarket, which they can nuke, assemble and serve in minutes.
We have 24 hours in a day; we just organize them differently. Sad to say, many consumers don't consider cooking one of their priorities. They are more likely to be on-line, checking their cell phone or "crackberry" dawn 'til dusk to get caught up with work or just relaxing with television/videos.
With so much media/Big Brother attention being focused on healthy eating these days, one might think what is good for us is the driving force behind Americans' food choices. But, according to The NPD Group's 21st Annual Eating Patterns in America report, Americans are motivated by convenience first - not by health.
"The driving force in our eating habits has always been convenience," says Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group. "The only surprise is how that will manifest in our behavior."
NPD asked more than 50,000 meal preparers why they prepared the dish they made for supper. The top five reasons were: required little effort or easy to make (53 percent); took little/no planning (50 percent); made with foods on hand (39 percent); everyone would like (35 percent) and easily cleaned up (34 percent). Looking for a healthy, nutritious meal comes in at a disappointing No. 6.
What's on the dinner menu? Americans eat sandwiches (11.1 percent) at dinnertime in their homes more than any entrée, including chicken (10.7 percent), beef (8.4 percent), Italian dishes (5.5 percent) or a homemade family recipe (5.5 percent).
And while 92 percent of respondents agree that it's important for our food to be fresh when we buy it, what they say and do don't jibe. Last year, nearly half (47 percent) of in-home main meals included at least one fresh product, declining slowly each year from 56 percent in 1985.
On the wellness front in 2006, NPD found adults want to cut down on fat in their diets (71 percent), calories (62 percent), cholesterol (62 percent) and sugar (59 percent). On nutrition labels, they look for "total calories" (49 percent), "total fat" (47 percent) "sugars" (41 percent) and "calories from fat" (37 percent). Conversely, 64 percent want to add more whole grains to their diets, dietary fiber (58 percent), calcium (58 percent), vitamin C (55 percent) and probiotics (9 percent), a trendlet to watch.
"Healthy eating will take hold when it is either easier or cheaper to do than what we do now," predicts Balzer.
Meanwhile, you might want to count the number of times you see the word organic each day. Some reports claim it's a $14 billion, fast-growing category. But organics account for only 2.5 percent of total food sales, despite hundreds of millions spent by major marketers - Kellogg, Campbell, Unilever, Kraft and General Mills -- in the past year to bring organics to the mass market, reports Advertising Age. In fact, spending to tout them by marketers exceeds profits.
There are three impediments to growing category sales:
- Organic products have higher price points, which consumers balk at in this tough economy.
- The message to mainstream consumers is unclear why they should switch to organics - still perceived as a niche market serving those in Birkenstocks, residual hippies or the environmentally conscious young.
- Some 41 percent of total organic food sales derive from commodity fruits, vegetables and meats rather than organic CPG products. Wal-Mart and other retailers, who make organic CPG products affordable, are betting they will bring late adaptors to the category to beef up profits.
Speaking of profits, all of us at Food Processing wish you a happy, indulgent holiday and healthy bottom line in 2007.