R&D / New Food Products

Consumers Seek Diet Solutions from Food Industry

Consumers seek diet solutions from the food industry, which they still trust.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

More than half of consumers usually do not plan their menus for meals at home. “Rather, they follow their cravings (69 percent) or use whatever is on hand," says Steve Bodhaine, group vice president of market research firm Yankelovich Inc. (www.yankelovich.com ), Chapel Hill, N.C.

At least that’s the word from the 2,208 respondents to Yankelovich’s “Food for Life” survey, which consisted of 30-minute, in-depth interviews on attitudes and behaviors toward diet, nutrition and preventative healthcare.

"Consumers want tasteful, convenient foods that help make dieting more a lifestyle and less a punishment,” he explains. “More than one-third of the population says, 'If it takes a lot of extra work to prepare it, I won't eat it,' and 'I would have to totally revamp everything I do to eat well.' So, it's unrealistic to think any changes will be made without a strong push from food companies and restaurants."

Parents are protective when it comes to their kids. Parents rate their children's diets at home 64.7 out of 100, 45.5 away from home, and 55.0 at school, and 58 percent think food served in school is a contributing factor to childhood obesity.


Kraft, Del Monte and PepsiCo healthy eating program logos
Consumers aren't looking to the [USDA Food Guide] Pyramid, but to the shapes represented by these processors' healthy eating program logos, to help them make good choices at the supermarket.

Consumers don’t trust the government as a source of nutritional guidance. Only 17 percent of the respondents visited USDA’s www.mypyramid.gov. They don’t support legislation to hold fast-food companies responsible for health (90 percent), to tax to junk food (77 percent), to ban marketing of unhealthy foods using cartoon characters (61 percent) or to remove vending machines from schools (57 percent).

But they do expect the food industry to govern itself more effectively, according to Bodhaine. “If it doesn’t, consumers will turn to the government as a last resort and likely have greater negative attitudes and opinions about a food industry that doesn’t act.”

Bodhaine says the industry can help with solutions, particularly in nutritional labeling. More than 80 percent of Americans don’t know how many grams of fat they should consume daily, and 48 percent don’t know how many calories, but think they eat too many. “Consumers rely on experience and labeling to determine what foods are good for their families, however, fewer than 25 percent have formal training in nutrition, so they don’t know what the labels mean,” he says.

“The unit of measurement on most labels is grams and milligrams, but most Americans haven’t been exposed to the metric system, so they use labels as a comparative measure rather than a relative one – this has fewer grams of fat than that. Labels don’t serve as a tool for intelligent food choice.”

The FDA is considering a new science-supported grading system for labels, according to Bodhaine. “If you make a salty snack claiming to be low-fat, the FDA would give you an A, B, C, D or F based on the research and science used to support that claim,” he explains. Bodhaine says the concept might be good, but there are likely to be flaws in the execution.

There’s a need for coordinated messaging over time. “Information must be accurate, credibly sourced, personally relevant and delivered over and over again with passion. We change our story too often. ‘This is good for you.’ ‘No, it isn’t good for you.’ We’ve created apathy in the marketplace through inconsistent and conflicting marketing.”

Information alone is not enough. “Many companies provide tools to interpret information, and I applaud them,” he says. “Consumers can identify foods they like, develop menu selections, get information about nutritional value and create a shopping list.”

Consumers also need access to experts, but physicians are not well equipped to provide dietary advice. “The food industry can position itself as responsible by taking initial measures to provide better information and tools and promote access to experts who provide support,” he says. “It also can offer more convenient, healthy foods that taste good, knowing there’s an appetite in America to pay a premium (some 20 percent more) for those foods and services. Industry needs to act now while consumers grant them permission to be independent of additional government intervention.”

Bodhaine’s advice is to be mindful of the variety of voices. “We’ve seen diets come and go. What is sustainable is the notion of organic and whole grain constructs. Organic is emerging as a dominant societal trend supported by significant shifts in infrastructure to sustain and support it. People want more of those foods, and retail has migrated very rapidly to expand these offerings.”

Consumers are interested in natural foods without artificial flavorings or preservatives, according to the survey. “It’s not a function of deprivation; it’s simply a reallocation of food choice,” says Bodhaine. “You’re not giving up chocolate or apples, you’re picking different kinds. This isn’t a movement back to the 1960s, where organic is associated with hippies; it’s organic in that it’s environmentally conscious, you’re ingesting foods with greater health benefits, and you aren’t compromising taste.”

What’s the biggest challenge? “In a world where companies are held accountable financially on a quarterly basis, it’s difficult to sustain a decision with long-term values,” he says. “Few companies are willing to take a significant hit to the bottom line by pulling foods not in the best interest of society, while they gain momentum for foods that are healthier. It is challenged by what is good for shareholders and society as a whole. It’s wrong to blame the industry for producing foods the public wants, but it’s wrong for the industry not to offer other options – healthier foods that taste good.

“I applaud many for their efforts — PepsiCo’s Smart Spot, Kraft Foods, and DelMonte to name a few — to improve the quality, accessibility and nutritional value of foods. This movement toward organic, healthier, balanced foods is a sustainable trend, and will handsomely reward the companies providing foods that meet those criteria.”

Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns on the Yankelovich study; part one was in June. Click here to access that article.

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