Low-income consumers seek healthy items, too

BELLEVUE, WASH. — Food and beverage companies have an opportunity to reach consumers in lower socioeconomic levels with health and wellness products, according to a June 15 webinar from The Hartman Group. Consumers in general, according to a Hartman online survey, show interest in products promoted for mental health and immunity.

The webinar focused on the survey of US adults of the ages 18 to 75 that took place from Jan. 29 to Feb. 10. Among the 2,347 respondents, 67% said they were more concerned about their health and their family’s health than they were a year ago. While 68% said they used food as a remedy to treat or prevent a health condition, 38% said they used beverages.

“So food has always had a health and wellness halo — or not, depending on the category — but certainly consumers are being more intentional about the choices they are making right now,” said Laurie Demeritt, chief executive officer of Bellevue-based Hartman.

In the survey 41% said their diet was either much better or somewhat better than a year ago, which compared to 17% who said it was somewhat worse or much worse.

The percentages differed based on socioeconomic levels. Among those in the low socioeconomic level, meaning a high school education or less and household income of below $35,000 annually, 35% said their diet was much worse or somewhat worse than a year ago and 27% said their diet was much better or somewhat better.

Among those in the high socioeconomic level, meaning they had a college degree or attended graduate school and had household income of more than $100,000 annually, 13% said much worse or somewhat worse and 46% said much better or somewhat better. Among those in the middle socioeconomic level, meaning all other respondents, 20% said much worse or somewhat worse and 33% said much better or somewhat better.

In the low level, 33% said they would like to do more to manage their diet but cannot afford it.

“The desire is there,” Ms. Demerrit said. “It’s just the means, the ability and the barriers that are there don’t always allow them to participate in the same way. When we think about it as necessity or opportunity from a food manufacturer’s standpoint, this is the population that feels right now it can’t participate but has a high desire to do so.”

The survey found 60% were more focused on mental health than a year. Ms. Demeritt also cited a study that appeared Feb. 3 in Nature showing 42% of Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression in December 2020, which compared to 11% during January-June 2019.

When asked their definition of health and wellness in the Hartman survey, 51% of consumers included immunity in their definition. The percentages varied by age group: baby boomers at 73%, Generation X at 52%, millennials at 37% and Generation Z at 33%. Across all generations, more than 81% said they felt their immunity needs to get better.

“There is a lot of difference in terms of how consumers feel about immunity,” Ms. Demeritt said.

Less-engaged consumers take a more historical view of immunity, as in playing defense and shielding off attacks on the body, she said.

“As consumers get more engaged in health and wellness, they become a little more thoughtful about sort of the ‘whole-ism’ of immunity,” she said. “That it’s really part of just one modeling system. For the most engaged consumers, they can make really articulate statements around immunity’s link to gut health.”

She added, “Immunity is something that will continue to be top of mind for consumers. The sophistication around how consumers are thinking about it is really evolving.”

Consumers continue to show interest in plant-based foods as 48% in the survey said they look for products labeled plant-based, 31% said they seek plant-based proteins in their diet and 34% said they are moderating intake of animal products.

Clean label challenges could arise in the plant-based category.

“These formulations are now being called into question because so many of them are highly processed,” Ms. Demeritt said.

The survey included questions about clean label. The percentage of consumers looking for foods and beverages that are minimally processed, when compared to a 2019 Hartman survey, rose three percentage points to 74% in 2021. The percentage of consumers looking for foods and beverages with the shortest list of ingredients rose three percentage points to 69%.

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