Consumers are more confident about healthy eating as pandemic impacts wane, study says

Dive Brief:

  • Consumers have become confident about healthy eating, with about two thirds saying they can easily find information about a product’s nutrition on the package and 73% saying they are confident that they can choose healthy foods, according to the International Food Information Council’s 2021 Food & Health Survey. Two-thirds are interested in learning more about the role of food and nutrients in immune health, and food is the most common source for them to get several nutrients.
  • Clean labels are also very important to consumers, with more than half interested in food that does not have chemical-sounding ingredients. Just about half also found it important that food only contain ingredients they consider to be healthy and can recognize.
  • Many of the consumer trends captured in IFIC’s annual survey were returning to where they were in 2019, before the pandemic. About 72% of respondents to the online survey, which was given to 1,014 U.S. consumers at the end of March, said the COVID-19 pandemic was changing their eating and food prep habits.

Dive Insight:

As consumers start to get into the post-pandemic period, IFIC’s 16th annual survey looking at consumer attitudes and priorities found that sentiments about food are also shifting. Some of the shifts could have been predicted, but some are more surprising.

The proportion of people who told IFIC they followed a diet in the last year —39% — was unchanged since 2020. However, the various diets they followed and the reasons for dieting had changed. Calorie counting was the most popular, followed by clean eating and intermittent fasting. Fewer people said they’d followed the trendy ketogenic diet in the last year. IFIC Director of Research and Nutrition Communications Ali Webster said this might be because keto involves a lot of thought and shuns a lot of traditional comfort food, which was not what most consumers wanted to do during the last year of being largely homebound because of the pandemic.

The reasons for following a diet also shifted, potentially because more consumers were homebound. Close to the same amount of people said they wanted to lose weight, protect long-term health and feel better in general and increase energy. But fewer people this year said they wanted to improve their appearance, likely because most people stayed close to home in the last year and appearance was not top of mind, Webster said.

As consumers are working toward eating healthier food, more people are eating more plant-based protein, the survey showed. Nearly one in four said they are eating more plant-based protein this year than last. This extends to plant-based meat — 19% said they were eating more of it — and plant-based dairy — 18% said they were eating more.

These results reflect sales trends for plant-based replacements for foods that traditionally come from animals, which showed a 27% sales increase in 2020, according to SPINS data released by the Good Food Institute and Plant Based Foods Association. But IFIC’s results don’t necessarily mean consumers are abandoning animal-derived protein. Just under a quarter of respondents said they are eating more seafood now than a year ago, and 22% said the same about poultry and eggs. And while 26% said they are eating less red meat, it’s fewer than the nearly one-third of respondents cutting down on beef last year.

Sustainability and social responsibility are also becoming more important to consumers. More than four out of 10 people said they believe their individual choices have at least a moderate impact on the environment, and 53% said a clearer understanding of the environmental impact of products would impact their individual choices. While many manufacturers have sustainability plans with targets ranging from lessening manufacturing waste to using renewable sources of power to ensuring farmers are paid living wages, it’s clear consumers want to hear about them.

But it’s not just environmental aspects of sustainability that consumers find important. Nearly six in 10 said that fair and equitable treatment of food workers was important to them when making purchase decisions — a percentage that was higher for Black consumers and parents of children under 18. Consumers had mixed success in finding this information, with 44% of the total saying it was easy — though more than half of those in consumer groups that placed more importance on this aspect said they could easily find it.