“We definitely do not consider fats the way we used to,” when fat-free foods were “really big,” but “fat is something that consumers continue to shy away from,” Darren Seifer, executive director and industry analyst of food consumption at NPD Group, said at the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Science Forum in Washington, DC, late last month.
He explained that about two-thirds of people tell NPD Group in its weekly survey about food consumption that they are trying to cut fats out of their diets – which is down from the 75% who used to avoid fats, but still higher than media accounts might suggest.
While the word fat is still a turn-off for many consumers in whom avoiding the nutrient was thoroughly ingrained through public health campaigns of prior years, there are ways to positively spin the nutrient, Seifer said.
For example, he noted, the dairy segment is seeing a move back to full-fat items not by advertising them as such, but instead by opting to use the adjective “whole,” which “has the connotation of not being tinkered with, as coming out just as we would have expected it to be with less processing.”
Consumer fear of sugar lives up to hype
While fat may kind of be back, sugar is definitely out, Seifer said.
He explained that 45% of consumers check product labels for information about sugar with the intention of trying to reduce their intake. He added Americans’ concern about sugar, as reflected in NPD’s research, far surpasses that of other nutrients of concern, including calories, sodium and fat.
Consumer obsession with sugar reduction and their lack of understanding about what it takes to remove unwanted ingredients from products has left some manufacturers scrambling for alternatives, Seifer said.
“The average consumer who doesn’t work in the food industry, like we do, doesn’t understand that there is a whole process involved” in removing unwanted ingredients, “and that it is not as simple as just taking out an ingredient and replacing it with something else. That it could materially alter the product if you take out that one little thing. So, there is a little bit of communication that is probably required here,” he said.
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What consumers want more of
Consumers focus on sugar reduction, as well as fat intake, is part of a larger effort to achieve overall wellness, Seifer said. But getting to that “platform of purity” isn’t just about avoiding ingredients, for many consumers it also is about adding more of desirable nutrients, he added.
For example, Seifer said, 56% of consumers say they want more protein in their diets, 52% want more whole grains, 51% want more dietary fiber and 50% want more vitamin C.
He explained that America’s ongoing love-affair with protein isn’t because consumers don’t think they are getting enough, but rather they are approaching it as “the anti-carb.” In other words, as something to help fill the void left by the other nutrients, including carbs, that they are reducing.
Protein also triggers an emotional response in consumers, such as making them feel uplifted and energized – giving manufacturers another way to talk about their products beyond simply calling out how many grams of protein are present, Seifer said.
Seifer also noted that consumer interest in dietary fiber is a bit complicated for manufacturers to navigate.
“The average consumer can’t tell you what is soluble versus insoluble in terms of fiber. So they just have this blanket statement of fiber is something I should get more of in my diet,” Seifer explained, adding “there is a little bit of an education process that is required there to help them understand exactly what they should get getting and that not all fibers are created equally.”