Amid the nationwide debate over health care, Americans appear to agree on one thing: Food is one tool they can use to improve their health. A survey found a whopping 89 percent of respondents say certain foods have benefits that go beyond basic nutrition and may reduce the risk of disease or other health concerns, up from 85 percent in 2007. Significantly more consumers “strongly” agree in the functional benefits of foods this year (53 percent) compared to 45 percent in 2007.
That’s according to the 2009 IFIC Functional Foods/Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey. The survey, taken May 11-20, asked 1,005 American adults about their awareness of and attitudes toward functional foods and beverages. It was the sixth such survey conducted by Washington-based International Food Information Council (IFIC).
“This year’s survey findings show us Americans are making the connection that foods can play an important role in achieving optimal health,” says Elizabeth Rahavi, associate director of wellness at IFIC. “Consumers’ awareness of many food and health relationships has reached an all-time high.”
The majority (91 percent) of respondents remain confident they have a “great amount” or “moderate amount” of control over their own health. Consistent with previous surveys, consumers overwhelmingly feel food and nutrition play the greatest role in maintaining or improving health (72 percent), more so than exercise (62 percent) or family health history (39 percent).
Of the specific benefits explored, more than half of respondents currently consume foods or beverages for an overall health and wellness benefit (56 percent), heart health benefit (55 percent) or to contribute to a healthy body weight (52 percent). Generally, respondents more likely to be consuming foods and beverages for specific benefits are those who believe they have a “great” amount of control over their health, view their health status as “excellent,” are dietary supplement users and are single.
Top functional foods named in 2009 include: fruits and vegetables; fish/fish oil/ seafood; dairy (including milk and yogurt); meat and poultry; herbs/spices, fiber, tea/green tea, nuts, whole grains/other grains, water, cereal, oats/oat bran/oatmeal, and vitamins/supplements. But beyond their interest in individual foods, people increasingly are associating them and their components with specific health benefits such as: calcium and vitamin D for bone health; whole grains for reduced risk of heart disease; antioxidants for protection against free radical damage; probiotics for digestive and immune health; and omega-3 fatty acids for cognitive development, especially in children.
New questions were added this year to explore consumers’ interests in certain functional components when making food and beverage selections. To improve the healthfulness of their diet, Americans say they are: changing the types of foods and/or food components they eat (79 percent), changing the amount of food they eat (69 percent) and changing their use of dietary supplements (19 percent).
Of those who say they are eating more of a specific type of food or food component (64 percent of respondents), the most mentioned foods/components (unaided) are: vegetables, including salads, (60 percent); fruits/fruit juices (53 percent); whole grains (11 percent); protein (9 percent); fish/seafood (7 percent); and fiber (7 percent).
In 2009, consumers were asked to rank the top three food components they look for when choosing foods and beverages for themselves and their children. For those who are looking for themselves, the top three are: fiber (37 percent), whole grains (34 percent), and protein (28 percent). For those looking for their children, the top three are: calcium (39 percent), vitamin C (31 percent), and whole grains (26 percent).
The food components Americans most likely consume for a specified health condition are: calcium or calcium fortified foods or beverages for bone health (58 percent); vitamin D for bone health (56 percent); fiber for reduced risk of heart disease (56 percent), digestive health (56 percent) and reduced risk of cancer (54 percent); protein for maintaining optimal health (56 percent); and antioxidants for protection against free radical damage implicated in aging and various chronic diseases (54 percent). Two key associations included probiotics for maintaining healthy digestive and immune systems (72 percent vs. 58 percent in 2007 and 71 percent vs. 54 percent in 2007, respectively).
Foods with added benefits are often discussed in the media as new studies are released that review certain foods or food components and their potential health benefits. Two-thirds of respondents agree reading or hearing about the relationship between food and health is of interest to them, and slightly more than half (56 percent) report being interested in hearing about what to eat, rather than what not to eat. Still, 42 percent of consumers agree food and health information is confusing and conflicting. While consumers say they want to eat foods with added benefits, the data suggest they are struggling to follow through and incorporate them into their diet.
Healthfulness is an important factor that influences consumers’ purchasing decisions. However, Americans report taste is the most important factor when making foods and beverage selections, and price is becoming increasingly more important.