American Consumers are Confused About Diet and Health

Study shows Americans' believe 'figuring out their taxes is simpler than improving diet and health.'

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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Uncle Sam will be happy to hear that more than half of Americans believe it is easier to figure out their income taxes than to figure out what they should and shouldn't eat to be healthier, according to the 2012 Food and Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes toward Food Safety, Nutrition & Health.

Commissioned by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation (www.foodinsight.org), this web-based survey of 1,057 Americans ages 18 to 80 was fielded in April and is the seventh annual national IFIC study designed to gain consumer insights on food safety, nutrition, and health-related topics.

Nearly all respondents give at least a little thought to the healthfulness of their diet (and are trying to improve at least one of their eating habits), physical activity and the safety of their food. But media reports are constantly highlighting concern over the "obesity epidemic," and seemingly contradictory news stories tout and condemn various nutrients. So many consumers acknowledge it can be hard to know what to believe about ever-changing nutrition information.

Only 71 percent would even hazard a guess at the number of calories they need to maintain their weight, and two-thirds of them estimated incorrectly. Only 15 percent accurately estimated. Some 52 percent are unable to estimate how many calories they burn in a day (19 percent say 1,000 calories or less), and only 30 percent correctly believe that all sources of calories play an equal role in weight gain.

Twenty percent believe calories from sugars are most likely to cause weight gain (a significant increase from 11 percent in 2011) while 19 percent believe that calories from carbohydrates are most likely to cause weight gain, and 18 percent believe the culprit is calories from fats.

Most-often used packaging information includes the expiration date (76 percent) and the Nutrition Facts panel (66 percent) -- both consistently have been at the top of information consumers seek from food packages. This year, the expiration date jumped significantly from 2011 (63 percent) to overtake the Nutrition Facts panel. Half of consumers look at the ingredients list, the serving size and amount per container plus calorie or nutrition information icons displayed on the front of the package.

Over the past 12 months, 51 percent say they tried to limit or avoid sugars. While 44 percent are trying to limit or avoid high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a similar number (45 percent) say they don't pay attention to HFCS. And most do not pay attention to complex (60 percent) or refined (62 percent) carbohydrates when making packaged food or beverage decisions.

When deciding what packaged foods or beverages to buy, 71 percent consider calories, 67 percent choose whole grains, 62 percent look for fiber, followed by sugars in general (60 percent), sodium/salt (60 percent) and fats/oils (60 percent).

Whom do they trust? Seventy-six percent feel that changes in nutritional guidance make it hard to know what to believe. When asked how they determine whether to believe new information about food and health, respondents say they follow up and do their own research before they believe it (26 percent), judge information based on the source and if it is from an organization they trust (24 percent) or simply use their own judgment and will not believe it if it seems too good to be true (14 percent).

More than 85 percent admit to giving some thought to the safety of their foods and beverages over the past year, and 78 percent are very or somewhat confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply. Only 17 percent report they have stopped buying a specific brand or type of food due to safety concerns. However, things that do have an impact on their purchasing decisions include bacteria (51 percent), "chemicals" in food (51 percent), imported food (49 percent), pesticides (47 percent), animal antibiotics (30 percent) and undeclared allergens (25 percent).

Americans think the person who prepares most of the food in their home does the best job of ensuring the safety of their food (94 percent), 82 percent say farmers/producers are doing a good job or better and 73 percent cite retailers. But don't get too comfortable, as food manufacturers (65 percent), foodservice establishments (64 percent) and the government (56 percent) rank lower. All entities charged with ensuring the safety of the U.S. food supply are viewed as doing at least a good job.

Similar to past years, taste (87 percent) and price (73 percent) continue to drive food and beverage choices more than healthfulness (61 percent), convenience (53 percent) or sustainability (35 percent). While respondents acknowledge they are trying to improve the healthfulness of their diet, 54 percent say they would rather just enjoy their food than worry too much about what's in it.

Key findings of the 2012 Food and Health Survey include:

Overall Health Status: Nine out of 10 respondents describe their health as good or better, a significant increase from previous years. The majority (60 percent) says their health is either excellent or very good, and only nine percent report that they are in fair or poor health.  Despite their belief that they are in good health, many recognize there is room to improve their diet, with only about a quarter reporting that their diet is either extremely or very healthful and about 21 percent reporting their diet is not at all or not too healthful. Nearly all say they are trying to improve at least one aspect of their eating habits, and 87 percent try to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Weight Management: More than half (55 percent) say they are trying to lose weight, significantly up from 43 percent in 2011; however, the number does seem to return to historical norms (54 percent in 2010, 53 percent in 2009, 57 percent in 2008 and 56 percent in 2007). While 22 percent are trying to maintain their weight, only 20 percent report they are not doing anything regarding their weight.  These numbers have remained fairly consistent for the past few years of the Survey.

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