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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Low-Calorie Sweeteners: Almost half (46 percent) of consumers consider whether or not the packaged foods or beverages they purchase contain low-calorie sweeteners. Of those who report that they are consuming low-calorie sweeteners (30 percent), either actively or passively, the majority of respondents (73 percent) say the reason they do so is for calorie control. An increasing percentage (41 percent) agree this year that low-calorie sweeteners can reduce the calorie content of foods and are an option for people with diabetes. In addition, four in 10 acknowledge the role low-calorie sweeteners can play in weight management, and one-third agree that they can be part of an overall healthful diet, both significant increases from 2011, but similar to levels seen in earlier surveys.

Protein: Nearly six of 10 consider protein when making a decision about buying packaged food or beverages, and the majority is trying to consume more.  Americans understand the varied benefits of protein, with 88 percent recognizing that it helps build muscle, 80 percent believe it is part of a balanced diet, 60 percent agree it helps people feel full, and 60 percent indicate a high protein diet can help with weight loss. While 84 percent believe that it is easy to incorporate protein into their diet, a quarter also believe these foods are too expensive to consume as much as they would like. More consumers (47 percent) try to eat protein during an evening meal than during other meals or snacks; however, more than half (52 percent) simply try to get enough protein over the course of the day or week rather than focus on specific meal times. They believe that higher amounts of protein are especially beneficial for athletes (80 percent) and teens (66 percent) than children under 12 (51 percent) and people aged 55 or older (46 percent).

Food Additives and Colors: When it comes to functions food additives and colors serve in foods, 68 percent agree that food additives extend the freshness of certain foods. Four in 10 also understand that food colors contribute to the appeal of food, a significant increase from 29 percent in 2011. More than half (56 percent) understand that both natural and artificial food colors must be labeled on food packages, and in terms of the regulation of food additives and colors, 60 percent recognize that the FDA regulates the use of food additives. In addition, almost half of consumers agree that food colors must be reviewed and approved by the U.S. government before being added to foods (46 percent), which has remained constant since 2010. However, only about one-third realize that the FDA sets allowable daily intakes for food additives and that non-government scientists and experts are involved in the review process of food additives before they are approved by the FDA.

Food Safety: 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. Nearly six of 10 (57 percent) agree that the chances they will actually get foodborne illness or food poisoning (like Salmonella or E.coli) from something they eat or drink are extremely low.

Only 17 percent report that they have stopped buying a specific brand or type of food due to concerns about its safety; however, concerns about bacteria (51 percent), "chemicals" in food (51 percent), imported food (49 percent), pesticides (47 percent), animal antibiotics (30 percent) and undeclared allergens (25 percent) do have an impact on what foods or brands they purchase.

Americans perceive the person who prepares most of the food in their home to do the best job of ensuring the safety of their food (94 percent). Eighty-two percent say farmers/producers are doing a good job or better and 73 percent cite retailers. While food manufacturers (65 percent), and 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.

About half (48 percent) feel that imported foods are less safe than foods produced in the U.S. Most of those (77 percent) attribute that to a lack of regulation. In fact, 61 percent believe imported foods are produced in less sanitary conditions, and 60 percent believe they could become contaminated or spoiled during travel to get to the U.S.

Information Sources and Influences: Three of four consumers (76 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 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), and will simply use their own judgment and will not believe it if it seems too good to be true (14 percent). Nearly six in ten (57 percent) believe that online and mobile tools can help them live healthier lifestyles.

Respondents find the MyPlate graphic to be effective in conveying the desired messages of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans: People should eat a variety of food groups for a balanced diet (95 percent); people should eat a healthful diet (91 percent); healthful foods are found in each of the five food groups (82 percent); people should have dairy with their meals (78 percent); and people should make half their meals fruits and vegetables (75 percent).

Purchasing Influences: 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 there was a significant decrease in the number of Americans who reported that price (79 percent), taste (66 percent) and sustainability (58 percent) had an impact on their purchasing decisions from 2011, the numbers appear to have returned to historical norms (except sustainability, which was new in 2011 and for which the norm will become clearer in future surveys). Older Americans are more likely than those who are younger to report that healthfulness, taste and sustainability impact their food selection, while price is more important for consumers younger than 50 years of age.

Family Health: Nearly nine in 10 parents believe that it is good for their health to sit down and eat meals with their family, with 57 percent strongly agreeing to that point, and two-thirds of parents worry more about the healthfulness of their children's diets than their own.

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