Coronavirus changed 85% of consumers’ food habits

More than four out of five consumers say the coronavirus pandemic has changed their food habits, driving them to cook, eat, shop and think about food differently, according to the annual Food & Health Survey from the International Food Information Council.

A total of 85% said they were doing something differently, with about 60% cooking at home more, the survey results said. The other changes are more varied and not quite as universal, with about a third saying they are snacking more and washing produce more.

Aside from more snacking, the pandemic has changed what people are eating, Ali Webster, IFIC’s director of research and nutrition communications, said at a virtual press conference announcing the survey results.

“A higher percentage of people said that they were eating healthier than they usually do as a result of the pandemic. And this was compared to a lower percentage of people who said that they were eating less healthy than usual, as related to COVID-19,” Webster said. “So I think people were really taking the opportunity to be thinking more about what they were eating, perhaps. Cooking more at home tends to be a little bit more healthy than the choices that we might make when eating out.”

About one in five consumers reported making healthier choices, while about half of that said they are eating less healthy, the survey said.

IFIC, which communicates science-based information on food health, safety and nutrition, does a wide-ranging survey every year to capture consumers’ pulse on the food system, how they use food for health, and the role food and labeling information play in their choices. And while this year’s survey of 1,011 American adults looks at many of those issues, the impact of coronavirus has an unexpected central role in the results. The survey was done between April 8 and 16, after many consumers had spent several weeks at home. This gave IFIC the opportunity to take a look at consumers’ reaction to the pandemic, and how they were keeping themselves healthy.

One thing the pandemic hasn’t changed is how many consumers consider the food system safe. A total of 67% of consumers surveyed have confidence in the safety of the food system, down just one percentage point from the 68% who felt that way last year. In fact, the top food safety concern this year was not foodborne illness or chemicals, but contamination from food handling or preparation in light of the pandemic. About half of consumers said they were concerned about eating food prepared outside of their homes.

Food for health

While taste was still the top reason consumers choose food, with 88% saying it is important, three out of five said they consider how healthy items are. And compared to 10 years ago, more than half said the healthiness of food makes more of a difference to them now.

However, slightly more than half of consumers have made changes to their diets to promote healthfulness in the last six months — down from two-thirds a decade ago. This may be because many already think themselves healthy. A total of 57% respondents said they were in excellent or very good health, and nearly three in four said their diet is healthier than that of the average American.

A total of 43% said they have followed a specific diet during the last year, and those results were many and varied. Intermittent fasting, the most popular response, was only followed by 10%. Just below that were clean eating and a ketogenic or high-fat diet.

Functional and healthy ingredients are important to consumers, with about a quarter specifically seeking them out. The ingredients that consumers consider healthiest are fiber (more than 80%), whole grains (close to 80%) and plant proteins (70%). Those three ingredients are also the most sought after in products, the survey found.

More consumers say they are eating more plant-based food in general, with nearly three in 10 increasing their consumption of plant proteins in the last year. Other plant-based categories are also seeing more consumption, with almost a quarter of consumers having more plant-based dairy, and 17% eating more plant-based meat. Although these increases in consumption of plant-based alternatives are not huge, the two categories that consumers are eating much less of are red meat — with almost a third cutting consumption in the last year — and dairy — which one in five has cut back on. 

What’s in a label?

Food labeling continues to be important to consumers. As labeling changes are on their way to foods, IFIC asked consumers about different aspects and terminologies on the new versions.

One of the more noticeable changes on the revamped Nutrition Facts label is its breakdown of the amount of sugars in products. The new label shows a product’s total sugars, as well as the amount of sugar that was added. While nearly three in four consumers said they were trying to limit sugar in their diets, four in 10 considered both naturally occurring sugars and those added to a product as equally important. A total of 37% said that added sugars have a major impact on health, while only 18% said the same about naturally occurring sugars.

When it comes to label claims, “natural” — which has no regulated definition — is the one consumers find the most important, both for items they buy at the grocery store and in foodservice. More than 40% find they are influenced by products labeled “natural” at the grocery store, while about 20% find it influential on a menu.

And the health halo of “natural” products helps them win over consumers. The survey gave consumers a hypothetical situation, where two products had the same Nutrition Facts panel, but other key differences. They were asked to choose which one would be healthier. And close to half said a product with an “all natural” claim would be healthier than one without.

As the new GMO labeling law is starting to be reflected on products, IFIC also asked questions about consumer reaction to it. The abbreviation many consumers are familiar with is not what will appear on products, which will be labeled as “Bioengineered” or “Derived from Bioengineering.” Consumers were asked if they would continue purchasing a product if they saw a “bioengineered” label on it. A third said they would continue, but 35% said they would not.

In the question that asked consumers to choose influential label claims, more than three in 10 said they would be influenced by a “non-GMO” label. Fewer than 10% said the same about a “bioengineered” label.

“The big contrast that non-GMO is a label that far more people are seeking out compared to ‘bioengineered’ or ‘contains bioengineered ingredients,’ which is the the second lowest,” Webster said.

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