Consumers Not Always Honest on Healthy Eating Surveys

June 1, 2006
Consumers may fudge answers on healthy-eating surveys, but they also appear to know what they’re supposed to eat and what to avoid.

Consumers often fudge answers when researchers ask them if they eat healthily. After all, who wants to admit not knowing how many calories they should eat each day, or preferring a Twinkie or a hot fudge sundae to a carrot or an apple?

But according Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Yankelovich Inc. ( and its Food for Life survey, consumers are ready to admit they are their own worst enemy. They know they consume more calories than they should, but just can't resist the foods they like best. And they admit it's likely they will indulge and then feel guilty. The Food for Life survey consisted of 30-minute in-depth interviews of 2,208 consumers on attitudes and behaviors toward diet, nutrition and preventative healthcare.

In terms of health and wellness, the average American rates his/her diet at home a 68.2 out of 100 and a 48.5 out of 100 away from home. Eighty-three percent think they know how many carbs and how much sodium they should consume daily, 80 percent know how much fat, but only 48 think they know how many calories are recommended per day. Though nearly half (44 percent) believe they are solely responsible for the healthfulness of their diet, they remain apathetic to their unhealthy behaviors without convenient and enjoyable food options.

"When it comes to food preferences, taste and convenience trump nutritional balance," says Steve Bodhaine, group president. "Some 70 percent won't buy healthy food that doesn't taste good, but 44 percent are willing to pay as much as a 20 percent premium for healthy nutritious food that tastes good."

It's important for the industry to keep in mind that the data is macro. "Different segments of the population respond very differently to food initiatives," explains Bodhaine. "There are ‘take change' individuals, who are concerned about their health and wellness and understand the role diet and nutrition plays within that. They are inclined to be well-informed about food and use tools to make their choices. ‘Best of intentions' individuals are avid information seekers, but have difficulty transferring information to action. They know what they need to do but fail to sustain that behavior. ‘Middle of the road' individuals don't want to be bothered. They sometimes seek information and act on it. The last group is ‘disinterested.' They eat what, when and as much as they want and really don't care.

"The reason it's important to keep this in mind is that on one hand you have a significant percentage of the population actively seeking more healthful alternatives, but that group is balanced by a significant sector who love the flavor of fat, crave salt, love sugar and will continue to consume convenient foods that taste good."

Multiple voices in America demand multiple responses from the marketplace, according to Bodhaine. "While some consumers clamor for better and healthier foods, many companies have a core constituency that spends a lot of money on other options, where taste and convenience are more important than health and nutrition. It's sometimes a question of giving people what they want versus what they ought to have."

Americans love chips, french fries and carbonated beverages, says Bodhaine. "In the history of the world, there's never been so much food available, and we are undisciplined in our ability to control what we consume," he notes. "The danger is the morbidity problems associated with obesity. In the next 15 years, we expect 50 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics to become diabetic, so the social implications are significant."

It's not that consumers don't understand the kinds of behaviors involved in a healthy diet; they do. But they don't apply the information personally. Although 82 percent of respondents say, "I am directly responsible for my health," and 87 percent think individuals are responsible for the obesity epidemic, a whopping 72 percent say, "If food doesn't taste good, I won't eat it, no matter how healthy and nutritious it is."

Ironically, they rate freshness as the No. 1 characteristic to look for in determining healthy foods; yet approximately 60 percent buy frozen, packaged/processed or prepared foods for at-home meals. And, although respondents identify fruit and vegetables as the top two foods for a healthy diet, 60 percent eat too few fruits and 49 percent too few vegetables. Nearly half (45 percent) admit eating too much sugar/junk food.

When asked about healthy food preparation, steaming ranked No. 1 (66 percent), and microwaving ranked among the least healthy (9 percent). Conversely, when asked how they prepare food, microwaving is the second most frequent method of preparation (37 percent), with steaming coming in last at 13 percent.

Next month in this column, Bodhaine will discuss challenges and opportunities for food companies.

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