Tracking Consumer Purchase Behavior on Health and Wellness Products

Oct. 1, 2006
ACNielsen US, Schaumburg, Ill., for the first time has tracked consumer purchase behavior on health and wellness products (as identified by label claims) across all categories. The results are an important tool for trend watchers, marketers and product developers.

The survey found products with antioxidants, fiber, no preservatives and organic claims on their labels grew by 10 percent or more for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 3, 2005 (vs. the year before), according to ACNielsen’s Label Trends report. Product categories with solid growth in the 5-10 percent range include label claims for lactose-free, gluten-free, whole grain, natural and omega content.

Leading the charge with more growth than any other health claim category were antioxidants. With sales at a half billion dollars (up nearly 22 percent), the category’s top products include vitamins, cereal, juice, tea and soymilk.

Reduced-fat, representing $35 billion annually, or more than 14 percent of all food and beverage sales, is the No. 1 health claim, but shows only modest growth (2.5 percent). Low-fat, its companion category, at $15.5 billion annually, grew a modest 2.8 percent. Since 2001, fat-free products are in decline (-4 percent).

Representing $4.3 billion in annual sales, products with an organic claim (UPC-coded products only) grew by nearly 18 percent in one year and 60 percent since 2001. Top-selling products include fresh produce and dairy products including eggs. ACNielsen predicts organic brands will expand into many processed food categories. Foods labeled natural represent $20 billion in annual sales, and the product claim grew by almost 7 percent in one year.

Mostly used in breakfast cereals and bread products, fiber content is another fast-growth health claim, up 18 percent in one year and up 50 percent vs. 2001. “Fiber content is a key component in calculating ‘net carbs,’ popularized by Atkins, yet is has not shown the recent declines seen by carb-conscious foods,” says Tom Pirovano,  director of retailing insights. “In fact, as the population ages, expect sales of high fiber to continue to grow.”

Low-sodium products generate sales of more than $11 billion each year and dominate the carbonated beverages and soups categories. Sales are up 3.7 percent. And no-sodium shows a slight decline.

Claims of lactose-free (especially baby formulas and milk substitutes) were up 9 percent with sales of $1.8 billion annually. Often made with soy, these products have a loyal base of consumers. “Both manufacturers and retailers may want to drive consumer penetration by creating awareness of the health benefits of soy,” says Pirovano. “Consumers are more aware of the heart-healthy benefits of omega-3s, and products with omega oils rose nearly 8 percent vs. a year ago and 39 percent compared to 2001.”

We asked Pirovano if there were any surprises in consumer purchase behaviors. “We try to anticipate and not be surprised,” he says, “but three trends are notable.”

  • Products with whole grain claims on their labels show healthy sales gains; however, most people would have expected steeper growth with all the publicity on the healthy benefits of eating whole grain.
  • Products making a cholesterol claim (cholesterol-free, low-cholesterol or cholesterol-lowering), represent nearly $10 billion. Although sales are flat, one would have expected significant declines as statin drugs, such as Lipitor, gained popularity. When these types of drugs go OTC (over-the-counter), the cholesterol claim may become irrelevant.
  • Look for more products with "natural" claims on their labels, including carbonated beverages. The FDA’s policy regarding the use of natural means nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food. Some manufacturers are looking for ways to tweak ingredients a bit and call a product natural even if some argue it isn't.
Health & Wellness Labeling
Health claim Sales ($ billions) Change vs. year ago
Reduced fat $34.5 2.5%
Natural 19.6 6.8
Low-fat 15.5 1.6
Low salt or sodium 11.4 3.7
Fat free 9.8 1.2
Cholesterol claim 9.8 0.9
Calcium claim 9.2 0.8
No preservatives 8.0 10.0
Whole grain 7.1 8.0
Caffeine free 6.4 2.0
Organic 4.3 17.7
No salt/sodium added 4.2 -0.9
Carb-conscious 2.4 -8.7
Lactose free 2.2 8.9
Soy 1.8 -0.6
Fiber 1.8 18.4
Protein 1.4 0.9
Omegas 0.6 7.6
Antioxidants 0.5 21.7
Gluten free 0.3 8.2
Total foods & beverages with health claims 241.0 2.7
All grocery products with health claims 337.0 2.8
Source: ACNielsen LabelTrends, 52 weeks ending 12/3/05 (excludes Wal-Mart)

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