WASHINGTON – While taste is still king, the number of American consumers who are putting more emphasis on the healthfulness of the food and beverages they buy is on the upswing, according to findings in the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s “2014 Food & Health Survey.”

For the first time in at least a decade, the number of consumers who said taste drives their purchasing decisions topped 90%. Price, at 73%, remained the second most cited factor, but healthfulness, at 71%, narrowed the gap. In 2012, 61% of consumers said healthfulness was a factor, a figure that climbed to 64% in 2013.

Fewer consumers pointed to convenience as a driving force in this year’s survey, dropping to 51% from 56% in 2013. Thirty-eight per cent said sustainability was an influencer, up from 36% in 2013, the survey said.

Certain subpopulations saw greater relative increases than others, with the per cent of consumers aged 18 to 34 citing healthfulness as a driver in food and beverage purchases jumping to 66% in 2014 from 55% in 2013. Meanwhile, the number of men citing healthfulness increased to 65% from 56%, which compared with an increase of 4 percentage points, to 76% from 72%, for women during the same period.

“While people’s attitudes about healthfulness in their food and beverage purchases and consumption alone don’t necessarily mean we are a healthier country today than we were a year or two ago, it could signal that we are moving in the right direction,” said Marianne Smith Edge, senior vice-president for nutrition and food safety at the International Food Information Council Foundation. “If perceptions translate into actions, the impact on the health and wellness of our nation could be significant and long-lasting.”

Eating more fruits and vegetables, cutting calories by drinking water, low and no calorie beverages, and eating more foods with whole grains topped the list of ways Americans said they are attempting to improve the healthfulness of their diets.

Nearly 9 out of 10 consumers said they have given some thought to the ingredients in their foods and beverages in the past year, but the number of consumers giving “a lot” of thought slipped in 2014 to 43%, down from 47% in 2013 and 49% in 2012. The number of consumers giving no thought to ingredients jumped to 12%, up from 7% in 2013 and compared with 9% in 2012.

When they do think about ingredients, 70% of consumers said they consider calories when making a purchase, down from 72% in 2013. Sixty-two per cent cited both sodium/salt and whole grains, which compared with 69% of consumers who considered such food components in 2013.

Added sugars remained the food component consumers most often try to avoid, at 51%, followed by trans fats (49%), high-fructose corn syrup (48%) and saturated fats (47%). Only 13% of consumers surveyed said they are trying to avoid gluten, an area that has generated a number of product innovations over the past few years.

More than a third of consumers said they regularly buy food that is labeled as “natural” (37%) or “local” (35%), with 32% who regularly buy products advertised as “organic,” the survey said.

Regarding food safety, 66% of consumers said they are “very confident” or “somewhat confident” in the safety of the U.S. food supply, down from 70% in 2013 and well off from 78% in 2012. But the percentage of consumers “not at all” confident in the U.S. food supply decreased, to 5% in 2014 from 6% in 2013.

The survey was conducted on-line from March 26 to April 7 and involved 1,005 consumers, whose ages ranged from 18 to 80. Results were weighted to match U.S. Census data based on age, education, race and ethnicity and region.

To read the full report, go to foodinsight.org.