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Poll: Function Trumps Claims

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Good nutrition isn’t about what you take out of your diet — it’s what you put in. That’s the attitude an increasing number of health-conscious consumers hold these days, according to the latest “Shopping for Health” poll from Prevention magazine and the Food Marketing Institute.

What’s being put in, in this case, are functional benefits that have become selling points for everything from cereal to bread to juice. “Low fat” and “low cholesterol” claims are so 2005. These days, consumers are looking for claims involving fiber (44%), whole grains (36%), protein (27%) and Omega-3s (23%), with reported benefits for just about every part of the body, from the heart to the brain.

juice.jpgFoods that are naturally rich in these nutrients have seen sales soar. Half of all shoppers say they’ve purchased dark chocolate, almonds or cranberry juice in the past year, and 43% say they’ve bought green tea.

Modern food science being what it is, even foods that aren’t replete with these nutrients are getting pumped up. Welcome to the age of “double fiber” bread and antioxidant water.

Is more really better when it comes to these various nutrients, though? Most nutritionists don’t seem to think so. Lack of protein isn’t exactly a nationwide epidemic. And while whole grains and fiber are an important part of any diet, an arms race to see who can deliver the most grams per serving is missing the point.

The Prevention/FMI study points to a few consumer habits that could lie at the core of our unhealthy eating habits. For instance, although they place so much importance on label claims, shoppers are actually reading labels less and less these days. In 2008, 71% of consumers said they generally read labels compared to 64% who last year said they did so.

There’s also the issue of meal planning. According to the study, 72% of consumers decide what they’re going to have for dinner on that day, and 24% say they make the call less than an hour out. When this happens, health (52%) falls below taste (73%) and quickness of preparation (60%) as the primary factor in deciding what to eat.

No doubt, functional food is where the sales are these days. Retailers should continue to ride that wave, and also help their shoppers form healthy habits like reading labels and planning meals a week ahead of time. This will build loyalty, and it’ll empower them to make more healthy choices — even if it’s not triple fiber whole grain cereal.

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