While consumer concerns about fats appear to have waned somewhat, the percentage of Americans blaming sugars for their expanding waistlines has almost doubled since last year, according to new research.
Asked ‘What source of calories are most likely to cause weight gain?’ (from a choice of 'carbs', 'sugars', 'fats', 'protein', 'all sources are equal', and 'not sure'), 20% of consumers in the 2012 International Food Information Council (IFIC) Food & Health survey selected 'sugars' - compared with only 11% in 2011.
There was also a sharp rise in the number selecting carbs as the source of calories most likely to cause weight gain (19% in 2012 compared with just 9% in 2011).
Meanwhile, there was a corresponding drop (from 40% in 2011 to 30% in 2012) in consumers selecting 'all sources are equal' - that is, believing (correctly), that what matters in terms of weight gain, at least, is ‘calories in calories out’ rather than the source of the calories in question.
Did ‘toxic sugar’ headlines impact findings?
By contrast, while the percentage selecting ‘fats’ as the source of calories most likely to cause weight gain rose slightly from 14% in 2011 to 18% in 2012, it still remains much lower than in previous years (2006-10), when it hovered between 26% and 34%.
The percentage of consumers claiming to avoid/limit saturated fats has also fallen, dropping to 47% in 2012 compared with 56% in 2011 and 64% in 2010, as media attention has shifted from fat back to sugar as the “villain of the piece”, IFIC senior vp nutrition and food safety Marianne Smith Edge told FoodNavigator-USA.
It was also significant that the 2012 survey - conducted by Mathew Greenwald & Associates for IFIC - took place in early April, immediately after the ‘Is Sugar Toxic’ episode of 60 Minutes aired, she observed.
High fructose corn syrup data has not changed
Interestingly, said Smith-Edge, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), for once, does not seem to have suffered as concerns about sugar's role in weight gain have increased, with 44% of those polled in 2012 claiming to try to avoid/limit HFCS intakes, exactly the same percentage as in 2011.
Good, bad and ugly fats. But which ones are which?
While concerns about saturated fats appear to have waned, attitudes towards trans fats have stabilized, with the same percentage of Americans (49%) claiming to avoid or limit trans fats in 2012 as in 2011.
Meanwhile, a failure to explain the terms 'polyunsaturated' or 'monounsaturated' probably explains the continuing high percentage (32%) of consumers claiming to avoid or limit intakes of these healthier fats, said Smith Edge.
Had the questionnaire added ‘olive oil’ as an example of a monounsaturated fat or ‘fish oil’ as an example of a polyunsaturated fat, the results would “probably have been very different”, she acknowledged.
As for protein, which has started to attract more interest among product developers and trend watchers this year, 48% of consumers polled say they are trying to eat more in 2012 compared with 39% in 2011.
Meanwhile 69% agreed that protein can ‘help people feel full’ and 60% agreed that ‘high protein diets can help with weight loss’.
We’re not doing as much exercise as we say we are…
Moving onto physical activity, while 65% of consumers agreed exercise could have a positive impact on their health compared with just 52% for ‘the food and drinks you consume’, consumers typically overestimate how much exercise they are actually doing, according to IFIC.
For example, while 66% of respondents described themselves as ‘moderately’ (55%) or ‘vigorously’ (11%) active in 2012, government data showed that in fact just 23% of Americans fit this description, said IFIC.
And while more than half (55%) of all consumers surveyed said they are trying to lose weight, almost a quarter of obese consumers and 44% of overweight consumers surveyed said they are not trying to lose weight.
While this last statistic is dispiriting, there are some very encouraging messages in the data set overall, said Smith Edge.
“I am glad to see that consumers are at least trying to eat more fruit and vegetables (87%), whole grains (75%) and reduce their portion sizes (73%).”
Click here for full details of the 2012 survey, IFIC's seventh annual survey into consumer attitudes towards food and health (an online poll of 1,057 American adults aged 18-80 years between April 3 and April 13, 2012).