Survey: Nutrition Information Abounds, But Many Doubt Food Choices
IFIC Foundation 12th Annual Food and Health Survey Also Finds That a “Health Halo” Could Be Causing Flawed Food Decisions; Attitudes About Food Vary Widely by Age
(WASHINGTON, D.C., May 16, 2017)—Americans are consuming food information from more sources than ever before, yet our nutritional literacy is sorely lacking—and our health may be suffering as a result. Those are among the findings of the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 12th Annual Food and Health Survey.
“As in previous years, the Food and Health Survey has shown that Americans feel overwhelmed by conflicting food and nutrition information,” said IFIC Foundation CEO Joseph Clayton. “But this year, we’re finding troubling signs that the information glut is translating into faulty decisions about our diets and health.”
“As policymakers work to revise the Nutrition Facts panel and define ‘healthy’ on food labels, it’s more crucial than ever before that we empower consumers with accurate information based on the best available science, in terms they can easily understand and put into action.”
The vast majority of consumers—eight in 10 (78 percent)—say that they encounter a lot of conflicting information about what to eat/avoid. More than half of those (56 percent) say the conflicting information makes them doubt the choices they make.
Almost all consumers (96 percent) seek out health benefits from what they eat and drink (the top benefits being weight loss, cardiovascular health, energy, and digestive health), but out of those, only 45 percent could identify a single food or nutrient associated with those benefits.
For example, while sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as fish oil can contribute to heart health, just 12 percent made an association between them. In addition, while people are interested in getting energy benefits, less than 5 percent could name caffeine as providing those benefits.
The “Social Network”: Family and Friends As Nutrition Advisers
So why are we confused? For one, despite their best intentions, the people we’re closest to might actually be leading us astray. In short, consumers paradoxically rely heavily on information from individuals—family and friends—for whom there is little trust.
About three-quarters of consumers (77 percent) say they rely on friends and family at least a little for both nutrition and food safety information, which tops other sources including health professionals, news, and the internet. But only 29 percent actually have high trust in family or friends as information sources, far behind sources such as Registered Dietitian Nutritionists, other health or fitness professionals, and health-related websites.
Meanwhile, six in 10 consumers (59 percent) rated family and friends as the top influencer on decisions about their eating patterns or diets. Personal healthcare professionals were cited by 55 percent of consumers, while all other sources rated only in the single digits.
The Health Halo Effect
The Food and Health Survey also suggests that consumers might be paying too much or making flawed decisions about nutrition because of non-health factors—or mental shortcuts—that drastically alter our perception of what is healthful.
These factors include the form of the food (fresh, frozen, canned), place of purchase (e.g., convenience store vs. natural food store), the length of the ingredient list, and price, among others —and they drive perceptions of healthfulness even between two foods with identical nutrition information.
For example, even with nutritionally identical products, consumers are almost five times as likelyto believe a fresh product is healthier than canned and four times as likely to believe a fresh product is healthier than frozen. Consumers also are more likely to believe a product that costs $2 is healthier than an otherwise identical product that costs 99 cents.
For years, some influencers have driven home messages conflating nutrition with non-health values, and now consumers are paying the price—literally, or at the expense of other desired factors such as convenience or shelf life.
Boomers and Older Americans: The Health-Driven Generations
As people age, their nutrition needs and dietary preferences change. But few have examined the shopping habits and eating patterns of Americans ages 50-plus—the country’s fastest-growing demographic.
That’s why the IFIC Foundation, in collaboration with AARP Foundation, conducted an oversample of respondents ages 50–80 for the 2017 Food and Health Survey to help uncover insights into the diets and health of older Americans.
Compared with other segments of the population, those age 50–80 …
- … are more confident in their choices. While 80 percent of all consumers say there’s a lot of conflicting information about what to eat and what to avoid, only 47 percent of those 50–80 say it makes them doubt the choices they make, compared to 61 percent of those ages 18–49.
- … use fewer information sources when deciding which foods to eat or avoid.Consumers age 50–80 also are less likely than millennials to use friends and family as a common information source (40 percent vs. 23 percent).
- … are more likely to adopt and maintain healthy eating behaviors. Among the most significant differences, Americans age 50–80 are more likely than those age 18–49 to be: