IFIC Foundation Survey
Nutrition Information Abounds, But Many Doubt Food Choices
Americans are accessing food information from more sources than ever before, yet their nutritional literacy is sorely lacking—and their health may be suffering as a result. Those are among the findings of the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation's 12th Annual Food and Health Survey.
"As in previous years, the Food and Health Survey has shown that Americans feel overwhelmed by conflicting food and nutrition information," according to IFIC Foundation president and CEO Joseph Clayton. "But this year, we're finding troubling signs that the information glut is translating into faulty decisions about our diets and health."
"As policymakers work to revise the Nutrition Facts panel and define 'healthy' on food labels, it's more crucial than ever before that we empower consumers with accurate information based on the best available science, in terms they can easily understand and put into action."
The vast majority of consumers—nearly eight in 10 (78%)—say they encounter plenty of conflicting information about what to eat and avoid. More than one-half of those (56%) say the conflicting information makes them doubt the choices they make.
Almost all consumers (96%) seek out health benefits from what they eat and drink (the top benefits being weight loss, cardiovascular health, energy, and digestive health), but out of those, only 45% could identify a single food or nutrient associated with those benefits. For example, while sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as fish oil can contribute to heart health, just 12% made an association between them. In addition, while people are interested in getting energy benefits, less than 5% could name caffeine as providing those benefits.
The 'Social Network': Family and Friends as Nutrition Advisers
So why are Americans confused? For one, despite their best intentions, the people they're closest to might be leading them astray. In short, consumers paradoxically rely heavily on information from individuals—family and friends—for whom there's little trust.
About three-quarters of consumers (77%) say they rely on friends and family at least a little for both nutrition and food safety information, which tops other sources including health professionals, news, and the internet. But only 29% have high trust in family or friends as information sources, far behind sources such as RDs, other health or fitness professionals, and health-related websites.
Meanwhile, approximately six in 10 consumers (59%) rated family and friends as the top influencer on decisions about their eating patterns or diets. Personal health care professionals were cited by 55% of consumers, while all other sources rated only in the single digits.
The Health Halo Effect
The Food and Health Survey also suggests that consumers might be paying too much or making flawed decisions about nutrition because of nonhealth factors—or mental shortcuts—that drastically alter our perception of what's healthful.
These factors include the form of the food (eg, fresh, frozen, or canned), place of purchase (eg, convenience store vs natural food store), length of the ingredient list, and price, among others. And they drive perceptions of healthfulness even between two foods with identical nutrition information.
For example, even with nutritionally identical products, consumers are almost five times as likely to believe a fresh product is more healthful than canned and four times as likely to believe a fresh product is more healthful than frozen. Consumers also are more likely to believe a product that costs $2 is more healthful than an otherwise identical product that costs $0.99.
For years, some influencers have driven home messages conflating nutrition with nonhealth values, and now consumers are paying the price—literally, or at the expense of other desired factors such as convenience or shelf life.
Boomers and Older Americans: The Health-Driven Generations
As people age, their nutrition needs and dietary preferences change. But few have examined the shopping habits and eating patterns of Americans aged 50-plus—the country's fastest-growing demographic.
That's why the IFIC Foundation, in collaboration with the AARP Foundation, conducted an oversample of respondents aged 50 to 80 for the 2017 Food and Health Survey to help uncover insights into the diets and health of older Americans.
Compared with other segments of the population, those aged 50 to 80 are more likely to do the following:
• Be more confident in their choices. While 80% of all consumers say there's a great deal of conflicting information about what to eat and what to avoid, only 47% of those aged 50 to 80 say it makes them doubt the choices they make, compared with 61% of those aged 18 to 49.
• Use fewer information sources when deciding which foods to eat or avoid. Consumers aged 50 to 80 also are less likely than millennials to use friends and family as a common information source (40% vs 23%).
• Adopt and maintain healthful eating behaviors. Among the most significant differences, Americans aged 50 to 80 are more likely than those aged 18 to 49 to cut back on foods higher in saturated fat (75% vs 57%), cut back on foods higher in salt (71% vs 59%), eat more foods with whole grains (70% vs 62%), consume smaller portions (68% vs 59%), compare sodium in various foods (63% vs 52%), and cut back on full-fat dairy or replace it with low- or no-fat alternatives (60% vs 50%).
• Be able to connect specific foods with the health benefits they seek. Of those who named a desired benefit, 49% of older Americans could associate it with a food or nutrient source vs only 40% of younger Americans.
Meanwhile, Americans' interest in getting weight loss benefits from food and nutrients falls dramatically with age. Weight loss and management are far and away the most desired benefit, at 40% among those aged 18 to 34 and 38% from ages 35 to 49, but that drops to 23% from ages 50 to 64 and 28% from ages 65 to 80.
The desire for foods and nutrients with cardiovascular benefits increases with age, from 11% for those aged 35 to 49 to 23% for those aged 50 to 64.
Confidence in the safety of the food supply increases significantly with age, with 55% of those aged 18 to 49 saying they're confident, 66% of those aged 50 to 64, and 76% of those aged 65 to 80.
Other Survey Highlights
• If Americans had an extra four hours per week, 46% would use that time to be physically active. That number is virtually tied with those who would spend more time with friends and family, while other priorities trail far behind.
• If Americans had an extra $100 per month, 25% say they would spend it on groceries—second only to "saving or investing" (57%) when given a list of priorities.
• Many Americans are overestimating their health status: While 59% say their health is very good or excellent, one-third of those people are either overweight or obese.
• About one in five (19%) of Americans say they occasionally read scientific studies for information about what to eat and what to avoid. That's slightly more than news articles or headlines (17%) and also ahead of sources such as health or fitness professionals on TV or social media, bloggers, food companies, and government agencies.
• Products' brand names ranked last among factors that impact our food and beverage purchasing decisions. From a list of six factors, 35% said brand names were a driver of their purchases, behind taste (84%), price (66%), healthfulness (63%), convenience (49%), and sustainability (38%).
• Consumers overwhelmingly shop for food at supermarkets (80%), followed by superstores (45%), warehouse/discount clubs (35%), farmers' markets (19%), natural foods stores (17%), convenience stores (14%), and drug stores (11%).
• About six in 10 (58%) consumers use nutrition information at least sometimes to decide what to have when eating away from home.
• Topping the list of specific components considered to be healthful by consumers is vitamin D (88%), followed by fiber (87%), whole grains (84%), protein from plant sources (72%), and omega-3 fatty acids (71%).
• Six in 10 (61%) Americans are at least somewhat confident in the safety of the food supply, down from 66% in 2016 but unchanged from 2015 (61%).
The results are derived from an online survey of 1,002 Americans aged 18 to 80, conducted March 10 to March 29, 2017. Results were weighted to ensure that they are reflective of the American population, as seen in the 2016 Current Population Survey. Specifically, they were weighted by age, education, gender, race/ethnicity, and region. Using ResearchNow's consumer panel, Greenwald & Associates conducted the survey.