Keith Nunes

Conflicting information about food, nutrition and what products consumers may want to eat or avoid is sowing doubt in people about their food choices. Most consumers say they seek health benefits from what they eat and drink. Most notably, they seek weight loss, cardiovascular health, energy and digestive health, but almost half are unable to identify a single food or nutrient associated with the benefits.

For example, while sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as fish oil may contribute to heart health, just 12% of consumers are able to make an association between the nutrient and the benefit. Similarly, while people are interested in consuming food and beverages that provide energy, fewer than 5% of consumers could name caffeine as providing the benefit.

These somewhat startling findings are included in the International Food Information Council Foundation’s Food and Health Survey 2017. The survey was conducted this past March and queried 1,002 Americans ages 18 to 80. The results were weighted to ensure they are reflective of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 Current Population Survey.

Confused shopper
Compounding the problem may be factors consumers link with healthfulness even beyond the nutritional composition of the products consumed.

“As in previous years, the Food and Health Survey has shown that Americans feel overwhelmed by conflicting food and nutrition information,” said Joseph Clayton, chief executive officer. “But this year, we’re finding troubling signs that the information glut is translating into faulty decisions about our diets and health.”

One reason for the confusion may be who consumers rely on for information about nutrition and health. Seventy-seven per cent of the survey respondents said they rely on friends and family at least a little for both nutrition and food safety information. The figure exceeds reliance on sources such as health professionals, the news and web sites. Six in 10 respondents rated family and friends as their top influencer about their eating patterns and diets.

Compounding the problem may be factors consumers link with healthfulness even beyond the nutritional composition of the products consumed. For instance, people may associate such product formats as fresh, frozen or canned with health and nutrition. They may also associate where they purchase a product, such as a convenience store vs. a health food store, with the overall nutritional quality of a product.

The IFIC survey shows that with nutritionally identical products consumers are almost five times as likely to believe a fresh product is healthier than a canned version. With regard to frozen vs. fresh, survey respondents were four times as likely to consider the fresh format healthier.

This aspect to consumer perceptions is also manifested in ways consumers participating in the survey define healthy eating. While the No. 1 response is “consuming the right mix of different food groups,” the second and third responses are “limited or no artificial ingredients or preservatives” in the diet and the consumption of “natural foods.”

The survey shows that for years marketers and activists have promoted messages that conflate nutrition with values unrelated directly to health. Amid the resultant confusion, consumers may be paying a steep price from both the standpoint of their inability to successfully gain desired health and wellness benefits and from an economic perspective.