IFIC: Higher food prices push some Americans to select less healthy, socially sustainable options

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/	Abdullah Durmaz
Source: Getty/ Abdullah Durmaz

Related tags International Food Information Council Nutrition

Rising food prices are exacting a higher toll on grocery shoppers than a year ago, with many offsetting increases by choosing less expensive items even if they are less healthy and do not meet their ideal social sustainability values, new research from the International Food Information Council reveals.

IFIC’s 18th​ annual 2023 Food and Health Survey published May 23 found nine in 10 Americans noticed higher grocery prices in the past year – up from 83% last year – with nearly three-quarters (72%) describing price hikes a “major” compared to only 59% the year before.

This tracks a nearly two-and-a-half-year rise in grocery prices that only recently began dropping this spring, according to the Consumer Price Index. In March​, adjusted prices for food consumed at home ticked down 0.3% compared to February – the first drop since September 2020. The overall food index was still up a dramatic 8.4% in March over the prior year, and while this is far lower than the double-digit year-over-year gains of the past year, including a 13.5% spike in August, many consumers are struggling to absorb costs. Unable to ignore wave after wave of price increases over the past two years, 87% of survey respondents cited price is a factor in their purchase decisions – up from 68% in IFIC’s 2022 survey.

Strategies for offsetting higher prices and managing their grocery bill range from consumers reporting they often or always cut back on nonessential food and beverages (47%) to always or often selecting new products or brands that are less expensive (also 47%) and choosing less-premium or brand-name products (47%), according to the survey.

More than a quarter of consumers traded down on health for savings

While the healthfulness of groceries remains an important factor more many consumers, it too is starting to suffer as shoppers look to rein in spending.

According to IFIC, slightly more than a quarter (28%) said they have made less-healthy food and beverage choices often or always due to increased costs in the past year. And additional 32% said they have done so occasionally in the past year.

Still, some consumers are uncompromising in their desire for healthy food and remain open to paying more for products labelled as such – just not much more.

IFIC found 55% of consumers would buy a product labeled as ‘healthy’ as defined by FDA over an identical product that did not bear the same claim. Of these, 56% would pay more for the product labeled healthy, but the increase most are willing to cover is small. Forty percent would only pay up to a $1 more for a product labled ‘healthy,’ while 15% would go as high as $5 more and very few would pay more than $5.

Most Americans unwilling to pay more for socially sustainable products

Likewise, most Americans would choose a less expensive product over a higher priced option that is produced in ways that are committed to the fair and equitable treatment of workers, according to IFIC.

Even though 46% of Americans say knowing that the worker who produced, distributed or serve the food they eat are treated fairly and equitably is an important factor in their purchase decisions for foods and beverages, 53% are more likely to purchase a $3 option over a $5 option that met those values.

This price sensitivity related to social sustainability, however, could be dissipating as IFIC found the margin between the two choices (53% vs 47%) considerably narrower during this year’s survey compared to the 22-point margin reported last year (61% vs 39%).

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