Ambivalent attitudes towards weight management are increasingly common as our relationship with food becomes more complex, according to How America Eats, a major new piece of consumer research from the Hartman Group based on interviews, store visits and online research with almost 1,800 US adults.
Obese, who… me?
For example, while most consumers surveyed were well aware of the obesity issue in a generic sense, they often failed to see it as something that affected them personally, with 42 percent agreeing that childhood obesity was "a big problem" in the US, but only 3 percent believing it was a big problem in their family.
Similarly, as people evaluate their own weight and body shape in the context of their family and friends, and average weights are rising, they are often unaware that they are overweight or even obese, and increasingly regard only individuals that are grossly overweight as obese, rather than those that might meet the classical medical criteria, noted the report.
“Consumers look to their intimate networks to provide the visual standards used to evaluate their own body shape and these networks also serve as a reference when deciding it is time to gain or lose weight.”
Conflicted, impulsive, intuitive, or just plain confused …
The report - the first major piece of research in this area conducted by Hartman since 2004 - also reveals how different groups of consumers - classified as Impulsive (33 percent), Conflicted (47 percent) or Intuitive (20 percent) - use very different strategies to manage their weight, and respond to different cues, highlighting the complexity of the task facing food manufacturers.
“Where possible”, say the authors, manufacturers should attempt to work out which group they are trying to attract and “customize nutritional information according to the segment you are trying to reach.”
For example, intuitive eaters (20 percent of consumers) exercise greater control over what, when and how they eat, try to balance their food intake and cook more often, and do not respond favorably to words such as ‘diet’, ‘reduced fat’, ‘sugar free’.
Impulsive eaters (33 percent of consumers) have a more reactive approach to health and wellness, seek instant gratification, are poor at meal planning, and do not respond well to phrases such as ‘lose’, ‘drop’, ‘control’, or ‘manage’.
Conflicted eaters, which Hartman argues account for 47 percent of consumers, seek to learn more about food but struggle the most to control their eating habits, and are the most likely to become overweight or obese.
What shoppers really look for on the label
As for what weight-conscious shoppers look for on the label, this too varies significantly from category to category, and from shopper to shopper, argues the report.
In ice cream, pasta sauce and ready-to-drink coffee, for example, such shoppers see flavor as the quickest determinant of which product is likely to be the best (perhaps least calorific) option when making their choice.
In deli meats and cheese, by contrast, freshness, flavor and salt content are the first things shoppers will assess; while weight-conscious consumers purchasing pasta will look first for wholegrain.
Meanwhile, shoppers buying frozen pizza, refrigerated dough, frozen snacks or meals will typically check calories before anything else, while those buying juice or energy drinks will look first at the sugar content.
So what should manufacturers do?
As a general rule, manufacturers should try to make it as easy as possible for all groups of consumers to do the right thing, says the report, from offering individually wrapped portions to integrating lower calorie products into the mainstream rather than separating them off into a ‘healthy’ section of a grocery store or restaurant menu.
Additional, positive nutrients on the label should be kept to a minimum of two and remain relevant to the occasion and category of product , while all food outlets should offer smaller, cheaper portions as a regular part of the main menu or product range rather than targeting them exclusively at children.