Market research company identifies the top ingredients U.S. consumers perceive as healthy.

To better understand how consumers will respond to an ingredient it is important to understand how it is perceived. If there is one lesson to be learned from the emergence of the clean label trend it is that some purchasing patterns are driven by whether finished products are perceived as natural, healthy, processed or artificial.

This past November, the market research firm Canadean published a survey of consumers from around the world that focused on how they perceive the health benefits of specific ingredients. In the survey, Canadean asked consumers to evaluate 100 ingredients and express whether they had a positive, negative or neutral perception of the item. The ingredients included on the list were chosen by Canadean’s research staff and included such items as whole grains, different types of sweeteners, lycopene and even calcium propionate.

The five ingredients U.S. consumers believe will have the most positive impact on their health include whole grains, blueberries, green tea, almonds and garlic. Rounding out the top 10 ingredients in terms of positive health perception, U.S. consumers chose olive oil, brown rice, potassium, pomegranate and Greek yogurt.

Given the focus on whole grains during the past decade, it is understandable why the ingredient would rank No. 1 in terms of positive consumer perception. A survey of more than 1,500 consumers released this past August by the Oldways Whole Grains Council, Boston, found that 64% said they had increased their consumption of whole grains “some” or “a lot” in the past five years. From a daypart perspective, 37% said they consumed whole grains at breakfast, 27% at dinner, 22% at lunch and 14% as snacks.

It is also understandable why blueberries and almonds would rank so high among U.S. consumers given the ingredients’ natural positioning as well as the positive health perceptions related to fruits and nuts.

“I think the health halo around nuts has really impacted the snack and confectionery category,” said Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director for Canadean, Fairport, N.Y. “You see almonds and other nuts being added to lots of products and now we are seeing products like Barkthins, which is a product that is straddling the line between confectionery and snacks.”

While both green tea and garlic have a strong positive perception among the consumers surveyed, Mr. Vierhile said their growth potential may be limited.

“There has been a lot of news around green tea over the years,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m seeing it show up a lot. It is pretty restricted to the beverage category. It does seem like ingredients tend to make the leap from one market to another, but green tea has not made that leap in the U.S.”

With regards to garlic, Mr. Vierhile called the ingredient a “double-edge sword.”

“Consumers have a positive perception of garlic, but it can stick with you for two or three days,” he said. “This is not something you are going to see show up in a breakfast cereal or a smoothie-type product.”

Mr. Vierhile called potassium’s inclusion on the list “more of a U.S. thing,” with 75.6% of U.S. consumers viewing the nutrient positively vs. 66.5% of global consumers.

“I think the difference may be the one business that has been banging the drum for potassium has been the coconut water sector,” he said. “That may have helped carry the message for potassium.”

Since its introduction in the United States by such brands as O.N.E., Vita Coco and Zico, coconut water has become a popular beverage, especially as a post-workout hydration beverage. Such ingredient suppliers as iTi Tropicals, Lawrenceville, N.J., also have developed a range of coconut water ingredient applications, including, most recently, a clarified concentrate with low turbidity and a caramelized coconut water concentrate with a toasted savory taste.

Mr. Vierhile added that pomegranate has survived the superfruit fad.

“Its position is longer term,” he said. “A superfruit ingredient like acai is further down the list and yet pomegranate has managed to grow how it is perceived.”

Beyond the top 10

Mr. Vierhile identified several ingredients outside of the top 10 that he sees emerging. Honey, for example, ranked No. 11 on the U.S. list.

“Consumers want a sweet flavor and honey can provide,” he said. “It’s an ingredient that doesn’t have any perceived baggage.”

Matcha was another ingredient identified by Mr. Vierhile as trending in the United States.

“Matcha is something that is coming,” he said. “It is much lower on the list, but that is more of an awareness issue. It is at the curiosity stage, but there is a lot of room for expansion. There is an education gap that needs to be filled.”

Ingredients at the bottom of the market research firm’s list and that are perceived negatively by consumers were monosodium glutamate and aspartame, said Mr. Vierhile. He attributed the two ingredients’ positions at the bottom of the ranking to news over the years that have shaped consumer perceptions.