Survey data gathered by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) showed consumers’ ingredient awareness on the rise. Tony Flood, Sr. Director, Ingredient Communications, IFIC, emphasized this point in his webinar titled “Consumer Perception of Food Ingredients,” presented at Global Food Forums’ 2021 Clean Label Premium Webinar.
Flood gathered information from several surveys conducted by IFIC(1), each with 1,000 or more participants from American households. Interviews—conducted with adults 18 and over, were weighted to ensure proportional results regarding age, race, gender and income. The results of these surveys paint a picture of consumers’ attitudes toward diet, health and food safety. This presentation focused on consumer trends concerning clean eating.
Consumer interviews conducted in 2018 in Baltimore, MD, titled “Clean Eating Values Among Millennials and Gen Z,”(2) relied on focus-group discussions to assess these groups’ insight into clean eating. Back in 2018, participants were not highly aware of “clean” and were not willing to accept trade-offs in taste, price and convenience for clean ingredients.
In a 2019 internal IFIC survey among Registered Dieticians (RDs) on clean eating perspectives, the RDs claimed they were discussing clean eating up to four times per week with their clients. In addition, they found they were seeking consumer-friendly resources on clean eating.
A mere two years later, more consumers seemingly grasp the clean-eating concept, given the results of IFIC’s survey titled “‘Chemical Sounding’ to ‘Clean’: Consumer Perspectives on Food Ingredients, 2021.”(3) Nearly half of Americans (46%) consider themselves “clean eaters;” among those clean eaters, 49% define clean as “not highly processed,” noted Flood.
Which Ingredients are Considered “Clean”
Regarding ingredient choices, 64% of those in the survey try to choose foods with clean ingredients. How did survey respondents define clean ingredients? Most people said they avoid ingredients with chemical-sounding names and those that are highly processed—preferring those with simple-ingredient lists, fresh, natural, organic and those perceived as nutritious. Among those that seek out clean ingredients, a quarter said health benefits were the top motivator, emphasized Flood. Of the 56% who avoid ingredients with chemical-sounding names, 64% of them cited the reason as perceived health concerns, he added.
When asked for examples of chemical-sounding names by a webinar attendee, Flood mentioned that IFIC’s surveys are broad in scope intentionally, so consumers can answer certain questions for themselves. “When consumers are asked for their safety concerns regarding food ingredients in the Food & Health Survey, we find they can’t list them by name,” said Flood. “If we list a particular food chemical or compound by name, consumers will respond to that in a negative manner,” he added.
Survey results revealed that “the words ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ evoke strong reactions around food choices. About half of Americans say they seek out natural flavors at least some of the time; 41% seek out natural sweeteners; 40% seek out natural preservatives; and 35% seek out colors from natural sources. In contrast, artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners and preservatives were sought by only about one in 10 consumers, with approximately half saying they avoid each of them at least some of the time.”
Flood presented data showing a significant difference among those with college degrees vs. those without in regard to artificial ingredients, with the former more likely to “at least sometimes” avoid these ingredients. However, there was no significant difference between men vs. women, income and race. These results are as follows:
- Artificial sweeteners (60% college vs. 43% non-college)
- Artificial colors (55% college vs. 41% non-college)
- Artificial flavors (52% college vs. 40% non-college)
- Artificial preservatives (55% vs. 42% non-college)
The survey did, however, uncover interesting data on consumers’ opinions on preservatives. While consumers who choose clean ingredients generally avoid chemical-sounding ingredients, the survey found 42% “agree that adding preservatives to foods is a way to help reduce food waste (21% disagree), and 39% agree that adding an ingredient to a food would be positive if it extended shelflife (23% disagree).
Consumers may seemingly consider animal welfare and sustainability part of clean eating. When asked how we (as food professionals) reconcile consumers’ push for meat alternatives that contain lesser-known ingredients, Flood noted that, from discussions and survey data he’s seen, “Individuals who want meat alternatives aren’t necessarily concerned with ingredients (per se). I think they’re more concerned with (animal welfare) or sustainability or other holistic issues,” he added.
The Importance of “Processed”
As previously mentioned, consumers interested in clean eating tend to avoid foods that are highly processed. IFIC’s July 2021 Survey “Perceptions on Processed: Consumer Sentiment and Purchasing Habits,” (4) ties in nicely with its survey conducted in May 2021 on consumers’ perception of food ingredients.
One of the key highlights in the survey on processed foods is that “many…are more likely to buy a processed food or beverage if it is high in protein, enriched or fortified with vitamins and minerals, and has natural flavors/colors.” It is interesting to note that similar levels of processing-related concerns are consistent across various food and beverage categories.
Also of interest is that taste, price and healthfulness are the top-ranked purchase drivers when grocery shopping, regardless of whether the product is processed or not. These same purchase drivers were mentioned in the 2018 survey on clean-eating values.
The in-depth surveys done by IFIC have important implications for the food industry—particularly for product developers and other key food and beverage industry stakeholders. IFIC’s collaboration with RDs results in the “development of consumer-friendly resources, so the RDs can help answer questions they get from their constituents. Strategic collaborations are important in helping provide consumers with science-based information,” explained Flood.
Consumers with science-based information can help food scientists deliver products that align more closely with their values and demand, such as clean eating—if those products meet expectations for taste, price and healthfulness.
“Consumer Perception of Food Ingredients,” Anthony Flood, Sr. Director, Ingredient Communications, IFIC
Summary written by Paula Frank, Online Content Manager
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