Survey Says Consumers Believe Food Can Aid Health

IFIC survey finds consumers believe foods and beverages can aid health.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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American's Top Health ConcernsAmid 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.

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Improving HealthRating their health

Although the majority of respondents (81 percent) rate their health status as “excellent,” “very good,” or “good,” significantly fewer (58 percent) say they are “somewhat” or “extremely satisfied” with their health status. This gap indicates that, while many Americans consider themselves healthy, some perceive room for improvement. In fact, significantly more Americans (64 percent) say they are making changes to improve the healthfulness of their diets, compared to 2006 (57 percent). Americans are making these changes in an effort to improve their overall well being (64 percent) and to improve their physical health and/or lose weight (both 61 percent).


Those most likely to look beyond basic nutrition

Consumers most likely to “strongly agree” certain foods have benefits beyond basic nutrition are those who report their health status is “excellent” (71 percent vs. 51 percent “good” and 44 percent “fair” or “poor”); dietary supplement users (58 percent vs. 44 percent non-users), those with a college education (60 percent vs. 49 percent of those who have a high school degree or less and 53 percent of those who have some college); and those who are single (56 percent vs. 47 percent of those who are married).


Top health concerns

Heart-related and circulatory conditions, including general heart health, blood pressure, stroke, and high cholesterol, remain top health concerns for consumers. Almost half (48 percent) of all respondents cite cardiovascular disease as their top health concern, which is a significant decrease from 2007 (53 percent) and 2005 (54 percent). This decline may be the result of significantly fewer Americans reporting concern about cholesterol this year (9 percent) compared to 2007 (13 percent). Consistent with 2007, the number of consumers mentioning weight as a top health concern remains higher than cancer (31 percent vs. 24 percent), and that has more than doubled since 2000. Diabetes remains as the fourth largest health concern (17 percent). Nutrition/diet remained stable compared to 2007, but is elevated from previous years (16 percent in 2009 and 2007 vs. 7 percent in 2005 and 12 percent in 2002). More Americans also cite exercise as a top health concern this year (14 percent) compared to 2007 (11 percent).

Foods and associated health benefits

Similar to 2007 and 2005, nine out of 10 Americans are able to name, on an open-ended or unaided basis, a specific food or food component and its associated health benefit (92 percent in 2009 and 2007 and 91 percent in 2005). This represents a significant increase compared to 84 percent in 2002; 82 percent in 2000; and 77 percent in 1998. The top functional foods named by consumers (unaided) are: fruits and vegetables, fish/fish oil/seafood, dairy (including milk and yogurt), meat and poultry, herbs/spices, fiber, tea and green tea, nuts, whole grains and other grains, water, cereal, oats/oat bran/oatmeal, and vitamins/supplements.

Seven out of ten (71 percent) consumers name fruits and vegetables as foods that provide benefits beyond basic nutrition, either generically or specifically, which has significantly increased from 2007 (66 percent). Significantly more mention fruits (48 percent) compared to 2007 (37 percent) while slightly fewer mention vegetables (40 percent in 2009 vs. 44 percent in 2007).


Food components/health benefit awareness 2009 vs. 2007

Components with the highest level of awareness (93 percent to 81 percent) include: calcium for promotion of bone health (93 percent vs. 89 percent); vitamin D for promotion of bone health (90 percent vs. 81 percent); whole grains for reduced risk of heart disease (83 percent vs. 72 percent); and antioxidants for protection against free radical damage (81 percent vs. 72 percent).

Components with the second highest level of awareness (78 percent to 70 percent): potassium for reduced risk of heart disease and stroke (78 percent vs. 64 percent); B vitamins for reduced risk of heart disease (78 percent vs. 61 percent); monounsaturated fats for reduced risk of heart disease (73 percent vs. 63 percent); omega-3 fatty acids for cognitive development, especially in children (72 percent vs. 53 percent); probiotics for maintaining a healthy digestive system (72 percent vs. 58 percent); probiotics for maintaining a healthy immune system (71 percent vs. 54 percent); and folic acid for reduced risk of heart disease (70 percent vs. 55 percent).

Components with the third highest level of awareness (61 percent to 45 percent): lycopene for the reduced risk of prostate cancer (61 percent vs. 49 percent); herbs and spices for reduced risk of chronic disease or weight management (60 percent vs. 46 percent); prebiotic fiber for maintaining a healthy digestive system (60 percent vs. 48 percent); lutein and other carotenoids for maintaining eye health (59 percent vs. 52 percent); soy/soy protein for reduced risk of cancer (55 percent vs. 47 percent); and plant sterols for reduced risk of heart disease (45 percent vs. 30 percent).


Personalized nutrition

Consumers were asked how much they have heard or read about using individual genetic information to provide personalized nutrition or diet-related recommendations, or nutrigenomics. Results indicate that awareness is similar to 2007. Approximately half of Americans report knowing “a little bit” about this practice (46 percent). The percentage of Americans in 2009 knowing “a lot” or “a fair amount” about this practice (24 percent) remained stable since 2007 (25 percent), however, this is elevated from when the question was first asked in 2005 (18 percent). More specifically, those who report knowing “a lot” about this practice remained stable (5 percent vs. 4 percent in 2007 and 5 percent in 2005). However, consumers stating they know “a fair amount” about this practice rose significantly from 13 percent in 2005 to 21 percent in 2007, and remained stable in 2009 (20 percent). Those who say that they know “nothing” about this practice has decreased from previous years (30 percent vs. 33 percent in 2007 and 37 percent in 2005).

Influencers on purchasing decisions

When asked about the impact convenience, healthfulness, price, and taste have on their decision to buy foods and beverages, taste remains stable and in the highest position (87 percent in 2009 vs. 84 percent in 2008 vs. 88 percent in 2007 vs. 85 percent in 2006). Price continues to significantly increase in importance since 2006 (74 percent in 2009 vs. 70 percent in 2008 vs. 72 percent in 2007 vs. 64 percent in 2006) while convenience (52 percent) and healthfulness (61 percent) remain relatively stable.


Top sources of health information

The mass media continue to be Americans’ top source of information on health and nutrition (unaided). Similar to 2007, nearly three-quarters of Americans name the media (70 percent), including the Internet (54 percent), television news (25 percent), and magazines (22 percent), among their top sources of information about health and nutrition. Similar to 2007, roughly one third of consumers name medical sources (34 percent), primarily physicians (31 percent), as a top source of information on health and nutrition. However, this reflects a significant decrease from 2005 (44 percent mentioning medical sources and 43 percent mentioning physicians). There was a significant increase in the percentage of Americans who name friends, family, and themselves as a top source of information (23 percent vs. 18 percent in 2007).

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