Health and wellness has had a transformative impact on eating.

JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — Consumers’ relationship with food and eating is shifting, and cultural changes and technological advances have reshaped modern lifestyles. As a result, consumers now have “stimulating culinary diversity and more dining options than ever before,” but “less time in our lives to spend on mealtime,” according to a new report from market research agency Acosta Sales & Marketing.

In its report, “The Evolution of Eating,” Acosta explores U.S. consumers’ eating habits and how they have changed over the years. The report also provides guidance on how the food industry can best respond to these changes.

“The way our society views food has come a long way since the TV dinner heyday of the 1950s,” said Colin Stewart, senior vice-president of Acosta. “From sharing recipes and photos of food on social media to a widespread fixation on healthy food and fads, we have seen a seismic shift in consumers’ attitudes toward food. Eating has evolved right along with society, and consumer brands and retailers must consider the dynamics, demands and preferences of today’s modern family to deliver successful food and meal solutions.”

Health and wellness has a transformative impact on eating, according to Acosta.

“Better educated about the connection between diet and wellness and armed with smart phone apps and Google, consumers are taking a healthier approach to eating,” the report said. “The impact of health and wellness on eating has been transformative — from the entry of fresh format stores like Whole Food Market and Fresh Market, to the expansion of fresh food offerings in traditional grocery stores, to the growth of neighborhood farmers markets, to the organic food boom and F.D.A. menu labeling requirements.”

In a shopper survey conducted last spring, Acosta asked different shopper demographics to describe what types of products they purchased, and what attributes those products had. Among total U.S. shoppers, 53% said they bought a whole grain/wheat product during the past year. Forty-two per cent said they purchased a low-fat/fat free/reduced-fat product, while 41% bought a sugar-free or low in sugar product and 40% purchased an item marketed as “all natural.”

By demographics, millennials, those consumers age 18-33, and Gen X, those consumers age 34-48, were most likely to have bought whole grain/wheat items and all natural items during the past year. Whole grain/wheat also was the top feature for boomers, age 49-69, and Silents (70+), but the second ranked feature was sugar-free/low in sugar. Meanwhile, 50% of the Hispanics surveyed said they bought whole grain/wheat products during the year, followed by 44% who said they bought an all-natural product.

Eating habits also vary across generations, the report said. According to Acosta, all generations prefer to eat at home, but millennials reported enjoying cooking the most and Silents were more likely to find cooking “a responsibility, not a pleasure.” Millennials and Gen X groups said they eat at least five meals a day, while boomers and Silents said they eat less frequently. Gen X shoppers said they did the most dinner planning, while boomers claimed to do the most lunch planning. Silent shoppers do very little planning, the report said.

Protein with a vegetable side was ranked the favorite dinner food for total U.S. shoppers and for Gen X, baby boomers and Silents. But millennials ranked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as their top choice.

Trends in snacking also were discussed in the report. Twenty-five per cent of total U.S. shoppers surveyed by Acosta said they eat a snack once a day, while 26% said they eat a snack two or three times a day and 4% do so four or more times a day.

“Snacking is having a major impact on the way we eat today,” the report said. “Spurred by time-crunched mobile lifestyles, generational shifts, a rise in single-person households, and diet trends, snacking is growing while ‘three square meals a day’ is on the decline.”

Retailers and consumer packaged goods companies looking to stay in step with evolving consumer eating preferences should try to spark interest, the report said.

“Engage shoppers by keeping things interesting and new,” the report noted. “Young shoppers especially are looking for exciting flavors and different food combinations.”

In a review of new types of food and dining experiences, the survey found that 38% of U.S. shoppers have tried jasmine or basmati rice, 35% have tried food trucks and 32% have sampled gluten-free foods.

For the full report