by Marion Nestle
May 4 2010

The latest survey: consumers want healthy foods!

Ordinarily, I don’t pay much attention to consumer surveys because the results are so dependent on the way the questions are asked and who gets polled.  But this one, conducted by StrategicOne and sent to me by Edelman Public Relations, is relatively uncomplicated.

It asks three questions (top responses, order of priority):

Which ONE of the following best describes the way in which you primarily think about food in your life? Health 23%, connection 18%, fuel 15%, love 12%,  pride 11%.

How important is it to you that each of the following food sources have specific initiatives focused on health, wellness and nutrition for people consuming their products? Supermarkets 91%, food producers 90%, packaged food companies 83%, casual dining restaurants 81%, fast food 68%.

How important is it to you that a food company have each of the following types of initiatives? Healthy foods that taste great 94%, health foods 92%, nutrition information 92%, community social responsibility 89%, front-of-package nutrition information 88%, fewer ingredients 75%.

People may not agree about they way they think about food, but it sounds like the respondents to this survey want the foods offered in supermarkets and restaurants to just take care of the health issues for them.  Good idea.

  • debs

    I would point out, though, that the third question did not offer answers such as “Great tasting, low-cost food” among its response choices. Had this survey offered the full range of possible responses, I’m sure that health factors (unfortunately) would have played a smaller role in the results.

  • Anthro

    The range of answers to the questions seem limited and overlapping. I realize I’m an anomaly in that I gave up long ago expecting any part of the industry to be responsible for my health, but I continue to support that idea as a public health issue, but as long as people think “Healthy foods that taste great 94%,” is the goal, I see a fundamental disconnect. Healthy foods DO TASTE GREAT, but the stereotype of healthy food as “nuts and berries” equating to sawdust when they are wonderful and tasty foods, is a cultural barrier to the industry promoting healthy food. The food industry has apparently determined (through valid research) that “healthy foods that taste great” means sweet, salty, and with a good “mouth feel” that usually comes from fat.

    I see obese people at the health food stores all the time loading their carts with organic packaged food, much of which is very high in calories. They think that “good” fat means you can eat all you want and that “organic cane juice” won’t make you as fat as HFCS. There are copy-cat versions of Pop Tarts, Cocoa Puffs and many more types of popular junk foods. Most everything, including the breads, are made primarily from white flour. You still need to avoid the center aisles. When I worked at a co-op, we were definitely told to always keep the “four C’s” (cookies, candy, cereal and chips) well stocked–as this is where the profit lies.

    I have a fantasy of opening a grocery store (as a non-profit venture) that only sells fresh and very marginally processed canned and frozen and packaged foods (tomato sauce, pasta, spices, fruit and veg, etc). I’m pretty sure such a venture would be a hopeless financial venture, but it could be the basis for some public education. This “business” would, of course, be accompanied by cooking and nutrition classes. Yes, it would include single serving sizes of well-labeled desserts such as ice cream, candy and baked goods, but these would never be displayed near the checkout. It would offer organic and conventional products. Amusing idea, no?

  • I have very little interest at all in the health claims of foods in supermarkets and food companies. No matter what they put on the shelves I buy 90% whole foods and cook myself. I do want to be able to get wholesome ingredients such as local and organic produce, unbleached flour and would love to be able to buy raw milk… but choosing the healthy cereal or soda, no thank you.

  • I was thinking something like what @debs points out. The survey seems to assume that health and taste are the only factor that consumers might care about. In reality, consumers probably care about health, taste, convenience, and cost, at least.

    I think that getting the balance right will be tricky for food companies- or for government if we decide to go the route of more regulation. For instance, I suspect that the biggest problem you’d see in my diet is salt. I’m pretty sure that my daily salt intake is a bit high. But I actually have really low blood pressure- so low that I am often turned away when I try to donate blood. So my take is that salt isn’t that big of a concern for me and I watch things like fat content and calories more. And yes, I’ll sometimes trade higher salt for convenience- because for me personally, that is a relatively low risk trade.

    Should my food options be limited because other people have problems with salt in their diet? I actually wouldn’t object to this if the limitations aren’t extreme, but I strongly suspect that someone with more libertarian leanings would.

    Anyway, this makes me think that if a food company (or government) is seen as deciding what the consumer should be allowed to eat, there will be a backlash. I think the approach that is more likely to succeed is to continue offering a range of options, but require better/less confusing labeling and maybe work to make it so that the “easy” choice in a shop (i.e., the one at eye level) is the healthier one.

  • debs

    @Clouds – Did you see the Colbert Report segment from last night about sodium restriction? — guests Micheal F. Jacobson of CSPI, and the CEO of the Salt Institute. The SI rep kept using the term “food police” — obviously trying to incite fear. While no one wants a paternalistic government (or Big Brother watching), the current situation in this country demonstrates clearly that the system isn’t working. Many of the demographics that are hardest hit by the obesity epidemic have to put “What is cheap, will taste good, and fill me up” ahead of health concerns, and many more are simply uninformed. So if the cheap food HAD to be lower in sodium (or fat, or sugar, or preservatives or all of the above) that could only be a good thing, right? I think much of the squawking about freedom of choice is actually motivated by money. The Salt Institute doesn’t want limits set on Red Lobster’s Admiral’s Feast (for example) — but is there REALLY any justification for 7100 mg of sodium, other than the profit margin of salt purveyors? And let’s not get started on corn people… 🙂

  • I am totally the passion food guy. I eat a lot more when I am emotional then at any other time. Do you think you could write about a blog about that or about nutrition supplements etc? I am doing a school project and I am looking for intelectual bloggers to check out my project. Its a video where we use comedy to promote nutrition. What do you think about that?

  • I understand the skepticism. But this is good news. It may be a propaganda. Changing perception is a good first step. There is an increased awareness in health care these days with all the productivity, positivity, eating healthy is part of their lifestyle.

  • Yes, and the supermarkets and food companies know consumers want healthy foods, that is why they are so good at putting misleading “health claims” on packaging. It is shown to significantly boost sales, right?

    Now if we could only get the price of healthy whole foods to come down! My husband came home with organic eggs and tomatoes last night and spent $20 on just those items (from Vons, a.k.a. Safeway)! It’s insane! I’m taking them back and going to my local market that has high-quality produce from local farms for a fraction of the price. But not everyone has that option (I live in southern CA).

    We need the get the gov’t. to redirect their subsidies to organic farms, or at least pesticide-free farms, so everyone can afford to eat healthier.

  • This sounds great, but isnt the reality of the situation that time and again it is proven that, although people say they want healthy foods, they dont actually follow up on their thoughts with their actions?

  • Sheila

    People may tell a survey they want healthy food, but the reality of watching what they put in their cart at the grocery store is a very different story. In the grocery stores in our community, the fresh produce is excellent…yet, consistently I see tons more processed junk food leaving in carts than fresh produce. Sorry to burst somebody’s bubble. I think instead of asking people what they theoretically want, we should simply go to stores and take pictures of cart contents, then do inventory. I have actually done this just for my own curiosity…simply turned around with my phone camera at the checkout and snapped picture of cart behind me. You should see all the junk food. ONE, count it, ONE cart actually had all healthy choices. The human with the cart was a college athlete…I wanted to give her a hug!