Weighty Issues Surround Healthy Food Choices

Consumers feel increasingly good about their health, but a disconnect with caloric intake continues.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Americans’ perception of their overall health continues to show improvement, with 39 percent indicating their health is “excellent” or “very good” compared to 33 percent in 2006, according to a new study from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.

The third annual survey of 1,000 consumers was conducted for IFIC in the first quarter of 2008 by Cogent Research. Comparing results from 2006, 2007 and 2008, consumer health status satisfaction remains relatively high, with 59 percent indicating they are “extremely satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied.”

Concern with their weight (75 percent) appears to be a very strong factor influencing the decision to make a dietary change. That compares to 74 percent in 2007 and 66 percent in 2006. Of those who made changes to their diet (69 percent) the reason is “to lose weight,” and 57 percent say they are actively “trying to lose weight.” 

Two-thirds of respondents (67 percent) made changes to improve the healthfulness of their diet. Those include: “portion sizes of meals or snacks” (60 percent) and “changing the number of calories” (57 percent). In addition, 52 percent of those trying to lose or maintain their weight reported “increased physical activity” as a change in 2008.

And while 57 percent who are trying to lose or maintain their weight say they are making an effort “to reduce calories” they consume, there still appears to be a disconnect between their reported behavior and their knowledge about calories. Only 15 percent correctly estimated the recommended number of calories per day for a person of their age, height, physical activity level and weight; only 31 percent correctly understand calories from any source contribute equally to potential weight gain; and 44 percent report they do not balance diet and physical activity to manage their weight (calories consumed versus calories expended).

While “taste” and “price” continue to have the greatest impact on Americans’ decisions to buy foods and beverages, the importance of “healthfulness” remains stable (62 percent in 2008 versus 65 percent in 2007 and 58 percent in 2006). When given a list of potential changes to improve their diet, consumers say they are increasing (37 percent) or decreasing (21 percent) their consumption of a specific type of food and/or beverage.

Sixty percent either somewhat or strongly believe certain foods and beverages can provide multiple benefits (for example, heart health). As in 2007, more than 80 percent say they are currently consuming or would be interested in consuming foods and/or beverages for such benefits.

Seventy percent are concerned with the amount of fat they consume and 68 percent with the type of fat. Continued concern over trans fat appears to be an important contributor. Trans fat awareness grew to 91 percent versus 87 percent in 2007 and 81 percent in 2006. Fifty-nine percent who use the Nutrition Facts Panel say they use trans fat information on the panel, and 79 percent who are aware of it say they rate trans fat as either “not at all healthful” or “not very healthful,” up from 64 percent in 2006.

While Americans know type of fat is important, knowledge of the types of fats that dietary guidance recommends consuming — including mono- and polyunsaturated fats — is limited. Awareness of both of these healthful fats (63 percent for monounsaturated fats and 71 percent for polyunsaturated fats) is low compared to other familiarity with other fats. However, those who rate monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats as either “somewhat healthful” or “extremely healthful” have increased to 28 percent and 23 percent respectively from 16 percent and 15 percent in 2006.

Americans continue to be concerned with the amount of sugar they consume (69 percent in 2008 versus 70 percent in 2007 and 62 percent in 2006). Those who use the Nutrition Facts panel look for information about sugar more often (68 percent compared to 63 percent in 2007 and 67 percent in 2006). Although there was no significant change in Americans’ concern over the amount of carbohydrates they consume, concern with the type of carbs they consume remained high at 52 percent in 2008, compared to 46 percent in 2006.

More Americans who are aware of low-calorie sweeteners report they tried to consume less aspartame (43 percent), saccharin (45 percent), and sucralose (44 percent) in 2008 compared to 2007. But 44 percent believe low-calorie sweeteners can play a role in weight loss or weight management.

Consumers were asked to answer a new question this year about their beliefs pertaining to food additives/colors. The result was 85 percent believe food additives can provide at least one of the following benefits: extend the freshness of certain foods/act as a preservative (68 percent); add color to food products (65 percent); help keep or improve the flavor of food products (61 percent); and reduce the presence of harmful bacteria in food products (36 percent).

Consumers say they gather information from the Nutrition Facts panel and the food label, 87 percent are aware of the USDA’s MyPyramid food guidance system, but only 26 percent  report using MyPyramid in some way.

Similar to the 2007 survey, breakfast was named by 92 percent of consumers as the most important meal of the day, followed by dinner (89 percent) and lunch (83 percent); however, less than half (46 percent) eat breakfast seven days per week. In the 2008 survey, consumers who believe eating breakfast is most important but do not eat it everyday cite several “barriers” including “not hungry right after I wake up” (59 percent) and “not enough time” (54 percent). Snacks are also an important part of most Americans’ days, with nearly all Americans (94 percent) consuming at least one snack per day.

When asked to describe their level of caffeine consumption, 64 percent say they “consume caffeine in moderation,” 22 percent describe themselves as consuming “more caffeine than the average person,” and 14 percent say they have “eliminated caffeine” from their diets.

New to this year’s survey were questions regarding safe food preparation at home. Eighty-two percent say they are confident in their ability to safely prepare foods at home, but that confidence does not match reported practices. Almost all (96 percent) say they are regularly taking at least one food safety precaution, such as washing hands with soap and water, when cooking, preparing, and consuming food products.

However, fewer report following key basic food safety practices, such as using a different cutting board for each type of food (48 percent) and using a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of meat and poultry items (29 percent). A majority of Americans (79 percent) are confident in their ability to understand and follow microwave oven meal cooking instructions, but only 15 percent check their microwave wattage and only 7 percent use a food thermometer for microwaved foods.

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