Whatever consumers say they are doing when it comes to making food choices, their actual eating habits reveal something very different, according to industry expert Harry Balzer.
Vice president of the market research firm NPD Group, Balzer maintains that Americans' eating habits are slow to change, and on the most part any changes are simply extensions of previous trends.
"We change what we talk about more than what we eat. We often mistake our willingness to try something new as a trend- but it's not, it's just trying something new! People like to think they are being adventurous, but in reality they are just eating the same things over and over," he said at last month's IFT show in Orlando.
What this boils down to in practical terms is a willingness to try different versions of the same familiar products, such as different beverage flavors, he said.
So the opportunity for food and beverage manufacturers is to pinpoint what Americans eat most and to develop new versions of these, which can involve new flavors, new added benefits or even new packaging.
And when it comes to the products that feature most frequently in American diets, chicken is at the top of the list, followed by sandwiches. The most popular breakfast items remain coffee and cereals, with yogurt also growing in popularity despite not being a traditional option for breakfast, according to NPD figures.
But the true forces behind consumer choice remain convenience, price and freshness, said Balzer, and these are likely to affect the long-term performance of any new products brought onto the market.
"The driving force in the long run is 'can you make my life easier?' And I always say that if you ever forget that, then you're forgetting why you're doing business," he said in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA.com.
"For example, cereal at one time was a convenient, hearty, healthy breakfast. But because of modern-day time constraints, it's just not as convenient as it was perceived to be 20 years ago, primarily because it can't be eaten on the go," he said.
Cereal bars went part of the way to addressing this concern, but consumers need a "fuller" breakfast, he said, adding that one way to make cereal an on-the-go item is to serve it with yogurt instead of milk. This is already being seen in certain restaurants, but the key is to market the product as a cereal rather than as a yogurt.
And when it comes to sandwiches, which have seen "outstanding growth" , the opportunity is to make the ingredients fresh.
"Fresh is becoming more and more important in the market place today, and it is almost at odds with processed foods. But this doesn't need to be the case."
Foods positioned for their health benefits also tend to attract consumer attention only temporarily in their attempt to try something new, according to Balzer.
"When it comes to health products, manufacturers were looking for an avenue of growth. And people try them, they just don't stay with them. Americans just want the latest way to deal with health. Every food and beverage category has a healthy counterpart, but these have never overtaken the regular varieties."
"In my opinion, manufacturers should offer healthier product within their product lines, but they should realize that 'healthy' for the most part is about 'new'. They should have a line-up of different products for this category, and as soon as one starts to weaken it should be pulled off and the next one put in its place," said Balzer.
In his concluding remarks, Balzer stressed the importance of taste- "which takes generations to change" ; new products - "but don't mistake this for a trend" ; convenience- "we've always moved towards making our lives easier" ; and cost- "we've never let food costs rise faster than our incomes" .
Balzer was speaking as part of a "Trending Toward Tomorrow" presentation at the IFT. The event included talks by AC Nielsen's Robert Gannon, who presented a global overview of growth markets, and NMI's Maryellen Molyneaux, who spoke about the growth of the healthy foods market.