Consumers remain confused about nutrition, functional foods
by Keith Nunes
WASHINGTON — A gap exists between what consumers think about nutrition and what they do about managing a healthy diet, according to a new survey from the International Food Information Council. The 2013 Functional Foods Consumer Survey revealed that despite consumers’ proclaimed knowledge about nutrition, 67% believe they fall short of meeting “all or nearly all” nutrition needs.
The survey also showed significant disconnects between people’s beliefs about whether they are getting sufficient amounts of specific nutrients and the reality of their diets, as judged by Dietary Reference Intakes (D.R.I.s) recommended by public health officials.
A comparison between the IFIC survey’s findings about perceptions of diet adequacy and National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data shows gaps between how many consumers believe their intakes are adequate versus the actual D.R.I.s. For nutrients such as vitamin D, 68% believed they were getting enough per day vs. 32% who were not consuming enough, according to the NHANES data; potassium (61% vs. less than 3%), and fiber (67% vs. 5%).
On the other hand, the IFIC survey did show the consumers participating in the study are getting enough B vitamins, with 60% believing they are consuming enough and 90% actually consuming enough on a daily basis.
There also are gaps in knowledge and consumption of a variety of other functional ingredients such as omega-3 fatty acids, lutein, flavonoids, and zeaxanthin. One-third, or less, of the consumers surveyed said they are not consuming enough of the components to meet their needs or to get a health benefit.
The survey showed consumers’ concern regarding nutrient inadequacy tends to be general rather than about a specific nutrient. Only 16% said they are concerned about the inadequacy of one or more specific nutrients. Most consumers said they are concerned about general health problems resulting from nutrient inadequacy rather than one specific health issue.
“While there is some disparity between perceived nutrient adequacy and actual nutrient intake, it is notable that consumers recognize the benefits their food can offer,” said Sarah Romotsky, R.D., associate director of health and wellness at IFIC. “Indeed, health-promoting foods and food components play an important role in meeting nutrient needs and improving overall health.”
Consumer interest in learning more about functional foods remains high. Eighty-six per cent of those surveyed said they are interested in learning more about foods that have health benefits beyond basic nutrition.
This is the eighth time IFIC has commissioned a survey to study consumer awareness of and attitudes toward functional foods. Previous versions of the survey showed that even though consumers have a positive perception of functional foods, reported consumption of various functional components for health benefits remained stagnant. The 2013 study explored perceived barriers to functional foods. Respondents were offered a list of 16 possible reasons for not consuming more functional foods. On average, they selected 10 barriers, indicating that they perceive a variety of challenges. Specifically, price is the most common barrier, with more than half identifying it as a major reason. Other perceived barriers included skepticism of manufacturers’ motives for adding health components to products, preference for the purity of basic foods, and taste.
The IFIC survey also delved into consumer perceptions of processed foods. When consumers were asked to identify the degree to which they considered a variety of foods to be a “processed food” the results showed that they even consider minimally processed foods such as a bag of baby carrots to be a processed food.
Adding preservatives or artificial flavors are efforts consumers most strongly associate with the phrase “processed foods.” In addition, adding nutrients to a food is considered to be on the same level of processing as canning, pasteurization or mixing/cooking with other foods. Between 27% and 29% of the survey takers believed such actions qualify a food as highly processed.
The IFIC survey was conducted between July 9 and July 22 and included 1,005 U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 80 years of age.