ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Today's shoppers consider dairy products prime ingredients in their good-nutrition menu, said Linda Gilbert, president of HealthFocus, a Des Moines, Iowa-based market-research firm.
The finding is part of a recent HealthFocus study that also showed consumers' top priority is good taste, that they believe good nutrition is individual (based on a person's life stage and health condition), and that they are looking for nutritional solutions to "fill in the gaps" created by fast-paced living and hurried eating habits. The study also indicated consumers' priorities include efforts at self-education and self-medication.
Retailers can make the most of consumers' behaviors and attitudes with well-planned marketing and merchandising strategies that emphasize dairy products' nutritional qualities and their role in promoting bone, heart and digestive health, Gilbert told attendees at the International-Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's 36th Annual Seminar & Expo here.
"Dairy has strong equities in health and wellness. And consumers said they prefer to get their nutrition through a balanced diet, from a variety of foods and from eating naturally nutritious foods," Gilbert said.
Even though they may have concerns about some dairy products' fat content, the respondents said they value dairy products as good protein sources. Milk and chunk cheeses top the popularity list. A full 60% said they use full-fat cheese at least once a week and 51% use low-fat milk at least once a week.
She warned, however, that consumers get bored and downright edgy when they're being told something over and over again that they already know.
"Consumers consider themselves somewhat knowledgeable and they want to get credit for that. They, for example, already know calcium is good for their bones. We should be telling them something new," Gilbert said.
In-store dairy managers can enhance programs that communicate the benefits of dairy products by building upon what consumers already know, she said. For example, another ingredient in milk -- vitamin K -- improves the absorption of calcium.
Instead of just telling them that milk contains vitamin K and magnesium as well as calcium, it's better to provide pieces of information that are related to each other, such as the connection between vitamin K and calcium. The information, too, should be delivered in a number of different venues such as point-of-sale materials and radio and ad circulars, in order to surround the consumer with data, Gilbert said.
While most shoppers today choose foods for health reasons, the trend is toward "usually" and away from "always." Gilbert attributes that direction to consumers' unwillingness to compromise their quest for taste.
The HealthFocus study was designed to identify current issues in health and nutrition behavior and attitudes, assess the trends in consumer priorities regarding nutrition issues, develop an understanding of where consumers are headed in their behavior toward their health and diet, and determine what nutritional issues will be important in the near future.
Fifty-two percent of the consumer-respondents said they're concerned about too much fat in their own diet, 46% are concerned about too much fat in their family's diet, and 37% worry about fat in their children's diets. Gilbert noted that while 44% of consumers "always" or "usually" maintain a low-fat diet, that's a decrease from 48% in 1996 and from 53% in 1994.
"Consumers who worried about dietary fats have already made the changes they are going to make," Gilbert explained.
They strongly voiced their misgivings about the taste of no-fat or low-fat products, including dairy items.
Among those who have tried or will try low- or no-fat dairy products, 21% "strongly agree" or "agree" that if a product is low- or no-fat, it will not taste as good as the "full-fat" variety. Indeed, 21% said they won't even try a product if it's labeled low-fat or no-fat.
A full 54% said they would use low-fat products more often if they tasted better, but for now, 31% said they would rather eat fewer full-fat foods rather than opt for reduced-fat foods.
There's no doubt that taste is king, Gilbert pointed out. The most successful no-fat or low-fat dairy products are those that involve little taste trade-off, like reduced-fat milk, yogurt and cream cheese.
Respondents in the survey said there's a definite taste trade off in low-fat cheeses, but some said they've actually grown to prefer 2% milk over whole milk. They said there's no taste compromise in no- or low-fat yogurt or cream cheese.
Taste is the driver when it comes to changing brands, too. While 58% of consumers are influenced to try a different brand because it offers better nutritional value, 60% said taste would lead them to try another brand.
In a move away from all the attention they paid to no-fat and low-fat items when nutrition labeling became mandatory, consumers are now showing increased interest in the positive benefits of foods, such as qualities that strengthen the immune system and boost energy levels.
Since most of the respondents said they're looking to fill nutritional gaps with food, there's a big opportunity for fortified products like orange juice with added calcium and yogurt with live cultures, Gilbert said.
She added that there's even room for herbal infusions, and that is already showing up in some beverages. More than three-quarters (79%) of the consumers surveyed were interested in data on building their immune systems with foods and more than half (69%) wanted information on high-energy foods, Gilbert pointed out.
"We get a lot on energy management. There is big opportunity there. People want to reduce the let-down they feel in the afternoon, and they also say they're often too wound up at the end of the day to go to sleep," she said.
HealthFocus surveys, such as the one summarized here, are conducted every two years, and done in two stages. By telephone, respondents are recruited and qualified as primary grocery shoppers. Then, they're mailed and asked to complete a written survey with more than 300 questions on it.