Luckily, a new survey from the International Food Information Council Foundation could help brands and ingredient suppliers stay in sync with dieters, if not one step ahead of them, by shining a light on who is dieting, which food patterns resonate with them and why. It also reveals where consumers currently are falling short of their health goals and how companies can help bridge those gaps, and in the process potentially earn their trust and loyalty.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, IFIC Foundation’s VP of research and partnerships Alexandra Lewin-Zwerdling walks us through these findings as well as how labeling more broadly influences consumer perceptions about the healthfulness of a product and ultimately their purchasing behavior.
More Americans are dieting
According to Lewin-Zwerdling, the most striking finding of IFIC Foundation’s 13th Annual Food and Health Survey was that more than a third of Americans report following a specific diet or eating pattern, which is more than twice the number from last year.
She attributes this dramatic jump to four main reasons:
- The increase in packaged products labeled as compliant with specific diets, such as low-carb or Whole30, making the diets seem more manageable;
- Media coverage of diets, especially intermittent fasting, is on the rise;
- Modern eating patterns are about more than weight loss, and offer a wider range of food values; and
- The ongoing obesity epidemic and concerns about health and wellness are spurring increased attention on weight management.
What are the top diets and why?
While intermittent fasting was the most frequently cited eating pattern in the survey with 10% of respondents listing it, Lewin-Zwerdling noted that carb restricting diets also are popular, including paleo which 7% of respondents listed and low-carb and Whole30, which each captured 5%. In addition, 4% of respondents said they followed a high protein diet and 3% listed the up and coming ketogenic or high-fat diet as their eating pattern of choice.
Lewin-Zwerdling explains these diets likely resonate with consumers because they cut out what consumers perceive to be the main contributors to weight gain.
“This year we saw a significant uptick in the perception that carbs are contributing to weight gain from 20% last year to 25% this year, with sugar still No. 1,” Lewin-Zwerdling said. “So, if you take sugar and carbs together, the perception is that those two are contributing the majority of weight gain as a source of calories.”
But weight loss isn’t the only reason that Americans adopt dietary patterns. In fact, according to the survey, it wasn’t even the top motivator for following a specific diet.
“This year, the top benefit that consumers wanted to see was cardiovascular health and the second top benefit was weight loss or weight management, and the third being energy. Last year, the first and second were flipped,” Lewin-Zwerdling said.
Unfortunately, the survey also found that many people did not know which foods or nutrients could help them achieve their health goals. Lewin-Zwerdling suggests this could open the door for manufacturers to provide help and potentially drive trial and earn loyalty at the same time.
“Six in 10 cannot connect their desired health outcome to a food or nutrient,” Lewin-Zwerdling noted. She explained this may be due in part to many consumers receiving conflicting information about what foods to eat and what to avoid.
To help connsumers, Lewin-Zwerdling recommends industry stakeholders simplify marketing language, provide educational materials through trusted RDs at supermarkets or healthcare professionals.
Access, price hinder healthy eating
Even if manufacturers and public health advocates succeed in educating consumers about what diets can help them achieve their goals, it doesn’t mean consumers will heed their advice.
In fact, the survey found many consumers know they are eating more protein than recommended and not enough fruits and vegetables. But the survey also found the discrepancy isn’t always within their control.
“We asked about barriers specifically to fruit and veggie consumption, and one of the most interesting pieces I think is that it is not about liking or disliking certain foods. What it comes down to is more of this access related issues around … people who are food insecure or might not have the means to eat as healthfully as they might want,” Lewin-Zwerdling said.
The impact of cost and limited access to fruits and vegetables is magnified when the focus is more heavily placed fresh, rather than canned or frozen, which can be less expensive and more broadly available.
This phenomenon held true for several other factors which are perceived as connected to healthier options, but may not actually be. These include the length of an ingredient list, the presence of GMOs, taste and whether there are artificial ingredients.
Factors related to desired health outcomes are not the only reasons consumers adopt specific dietary patterns. According to the survey, sustainability is an increasingly important factor in diet selection, as is the familiarity of the food or ingredient.
While survey was wide-ranging, Lewin-Zwerdling said there are four main take-away points for industry. One is the uptick in diets focused on low-carb, two is consumers’ continued focus on protein, three is the importance they place on familiarity and four is the widespread confusion about health and diet and the needed for a trusted source to turn to for reliable information.