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Survey Shows Fasting, Organic, "Natural," and Sustainable Trends on the Rise

More than one in three US consumers are following a specific diet or eating pattern, and are increasingly averse to carbohydrates and sugar, according to the 13th Annual Food and Health Survey, released by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.

Given a list of diets to choose from, or the option to write in a response, 36% of Americans reported following a specific eating pattern or diet within the past year, more than double the percentage (14%) from 2017 when it was an open-ended question.

The top eating pattern cited was intermittent fasting (10%). Diets considered at least somewhat restrictive of carbohydrates were well represented, including Paleo (7%), low-carb (5%), Whole30 (5%), high-protein (4%), and ketogenic/high-fat (3%). Younger consumers (aged 18 to 34) were more likely to follow a specific eating pattern or diet than those 35 and older.

More Americans than in previous years blame carbs, and specifically sugars, for weight gain. While sugars continue to be the most cited cause of weight gain (33%), carbohydrates rank second at 25%, up from 20% in 2017. Both of those numbers are the highest since 2011. Fats (16%), protein (3%), and "all sources" (17%) lagged behind when placing blame.

Cardiovascular Health Is Top Desired Benefit, but Consumers Don't Know How
to Achieve It
Almost all consumers are interested in getting specific health benefits from food or nutrients. However, the top two desired health benefits in 2018 changed places from 2017: This year, 20% ranked cardiovascular health as their top desired benefit, followed by weight loss or weight management at 18% and energy at 13%. In 2017, those numbers were 16%, 32%, and 14%, respectively.

However, consumers remain confused about how to achieve these desired outcomes; only 38% can name a food they would seek out to help with their top health concern. Protein was most frequently identified (10%), followed by vegetables (7%), vitamins and minerals (5%), and fruits (4%).

"This dietary disconnect—the inability to connect specific foods and nutrients to desired health outcomes—illustrates the need for stronger, clearer nutrition education based on the best available evidence," says Joseph Clayton, CEO of the IFIC Foundation.

Eight in 10 consumers say there's much conflicting information about what foods to eat or avoid, a number similar to 2017. Of those people, 59% say that conflicting information makes them doubt their food choices—but the data show a troubling disparity among ethnicities, with those who doubt their choices as a result of conflicting information rising to 78% of Hispanic consumers.

Organics, "Natural," and Sustainability Grow as Priorities
"Food values" continue their growth as a factor in consumers' decision-making, with organics becoming increasingly popular in purchasing choices. When shopping for foods and beverages, 29% buy those labeled organic, up from 25% in 2017. The increase is even more significant when people eat out: 20% said they eat at restaurants with foods and beverages advertised as organic compared with 14% last year.

Similarly, 37% of shoppers bought foods and beverages billed as "natural," up from 31% in 2017, and 26% of consumers ate at restaurants with "natural" food and beverage options compared with 23% in 2017.

The importance of sustainability in food production also looms larger in 2018, with 59% of consumers saying it's important that the foods they purchase and consume be produced in a sustainable way, jumping up from 50% in 2017.

Out of those 59% who believe sustainability is important, their top two most important factors of sustainability increased significantly over 2017: 33% in 2018 said reducing pesticides was their top priority (up from 27% in 2017), while ensuring an affordable food supply jumped from 10% in 2017 to 16% in 2018.

Consumers Favorable to the Familiar, Averse to the "Artificial"
The key driving factors behind consumers' food and beverage purchases are largely unchanged in 2018. "Taste" still reigns supreme (as it has every year the Food and Health Survey has been conducted), with 81% saying it has at least some impact on their buying decisions, followed by familiarity (a new addition in this year's survey, at 65%), price (64%), healthfulness (61%), convenience (54%), and sustainability (39%).

Perhaps unsurprisingly in the current communications environment, consumers are averse to artificial ingredients, at least compared with the alternatives. When asked to choose between two versions of the same product—an older one that includes artificial ingredients and a newer version that does not—seven in 10 (69%) chose the product with no artificial ingredients, while the remainder chose the one containing artificial ingredients.

The survey also asked those who preferred a product with no artificial ingredients how much they would be willing to pay vs a similar product with artificial ingredients that cost $1: 62% would pay up to 10% more ($1.10) for the product without artificial ingredients; 42% would pay up to 50% more ($1.50); and 22% would pay double the price ($2).

Context also is key in how consumers perceive the healthfulness of two products with otherwise identical nutritional content. When asked to identify the more healthful of two products with the same Nutrition Facts Panel, 40% perceived one labeled "non-GMO" as more healthful while 15% voted for one with genetically engineered ingredients. In addition, 33% believed a product with a shorter ingredient list was more healthful than one with more ingredients (15%).

But a little of the luster is off the "fresh food" halo from last year, at least compared with frozen foods. A significant change from 2017 was that 41% in 2018 perceived a fresh product to be more healthful than a frozen one, which dropped from 47% last year, while 10% (in both 2017 and 2018) believed frozen products were more healthful.

Trust in Government Agencies Grows, Reliance on Multitude of Sources for
Nutrition Information
This year and last year, consumers were asked to rate the sources where they often get information about what to eat or avoid, as well as how much they trust those sources.

Among 14 sources listed, government agencies recorded the biggest increases in both measures. In 2018, 19% of consumers said they often get such information from a government agency, nearly double the 11% in 2017, and 38% said they trust government agencies as an information source, up from 25% in 2017. (One caveat: This year's question gave specific examples of agencies—USDA, Environmental Protection Agency, FDA, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—whereas last year's only mentioned government agencies in general.)

Friends/family members and personal health care professionals tied at 30% as the most relied-upon sources of information; however, health care professionals are far more trusted (66%) than friends and family (26%).

"Consumers continue to rely heavily on nutrition information sources that they admit they don't trust," says Alexandra Lewin-Zwerdling, PhD, vice president for research and partnerships at the IFIC Foundation. "This may speak to the public confusion we have consistently found on topics of nutrition and food safety."

In a couple of examples of a generational information gap, Americans aged 65 and older were more likely (76%) to trust an RD compared with adults aged 35 and younger (65%). In addition, when asked which source of information most influenced their opinion on food safety issues, 44 % of those aged 65 and older cited news articles or headlines, while only 16% of those aged 18 to 34 agreed.

Our Dinner Plates Don't Match "MyPlate"
American consumer assumptions, regarding which foods experts recommend for filling an adult's dinner plate, are pretty close to the actual guidance from USDA's MyPlate. However, what Americans actually eat is a different story.

USDA's MyPlate recommends that adult plates be about one-half fruits and vegetables, with the rest of the plate divided up by grains (one-half of which should be whole grains) and protein, with dairy represented by a separate circle next to the plate. When consumers were asked which foods they believe experts would recommend to fill their plates, they were on the mark with vegetables (30%) and fruits (21%), while protein (29%) and grains (20%) made up the balance.

What people really eat diverges from the recommendations, with protein leading the way at 38%, followed by vegetables (29%), grains (21%), and fruits (12%). About one-half (48%) say they include dairy often or always; only 2% say they never include dairy products.

The results are derived from an online survey of 1,009 Americans aged 18 to 80, conducted March 12 to March 26, 2018. Results were weighted to ensure they're reflective of the American population, as seen in the 2017 Current Population Survey. Specifically, they were weighted by age, education, gender, race/ethnicity, and region. The survey was conducted by Greenwald & Associates, using ResearchNow's consumer panel.

— Source: International Food Information Council Foundation