Keith Nunes

Nutrition science and medical research continue to open doors into developing a better understanding into how diet and specific nutrients may affect an individual’s overall health, wellness and ability to protect against some illnesses. Research into the microbiome, for example, is fascinating and yielding significant learnings into how developing and maintaining healthy gut flora may protect individuals from autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

While the research community is rapidly advancing its understanding of how to manage health through nutrition, most consumers are not keeping pace. The role specific nutrients play in health management is woefully misunderstood by many.

Surging demand for protein provides a perfect example. Despite no evidence that, for most people, inadequate daily protein intake is a problem, consumer interest in and demand for the nutrient is exploding. What began in the yogurt category as a point of differentiation in the morning daypart from carbohydrate-focused offerings has expanded into multiple other product formats and eating occasions.

Plant-based protein products
Products featuring plant-based protein are enjoying heightened demand in part because of their sustainability credentials.

The craze has taken on a life of its own with some consumers fixating on how different protein sources affect the environment. While most animal-based proteins are more complete compared to the plant-based alternatives, those sourced from plants are enjoying heightened demand in part because of their sustainability credentials.

Whole grains are another misunderstood nutrient. Globally, people say they want whole grains, but they need more education on the subject, too, according to a study commissioned by Cereal Partners Worldwide that was released Nov. 13. The study, which involved 16,173 adults from 11 countries, found 82% of respondents said they think it is important to eat whole grains, but 83% did not know how many grams of whole grains they should eat daily.

Consumers also are confused about sources of whole grains. In fact, 10% incorrectly said bananas contain whole grains. Other people incorrectly thought seeds (28% of respondents) and nuts (21%) contain whole grains. The various health benefits of whole grains were not fully understood either. While 65% identified whole grains as high in fiber and 64% said whole grains may be good for digestion, only 48% said they are good for the heart and 18% said whole grains may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

At times the consumer’s lack of knowledge about nutrition and nutrients is truly discouraging. Responses to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2017 Food and Health Survey showed that only 12% of consumers could make an association between omega-3 fatty acids and heart health. Similarly, the survey showed that while consumers are interested in food and beverages that provide energy, fewer than 5% of consumers could name caffeine as providing the benefit.

During the past few years the number of “sin taxes” associated with beverages containing sugar or other caloric sweeteners that have been proposed or implemented has risen significantly. The goal of these efforts is to encourage consumers to choose healthier options. Yet the question must be asked, how will many consumers make healthier choices if they don’t understand the fundamentals of nutrition?