Nutrition Connection: How We Make Nutrition Decisions • Summer 2007
The old adage that we are what we eat tells only half a story. When it comes to eating habits, the other part is: We eat what we think is good for us. And understanding what is good for us can be complex and confusing, with an abundance of nutrition-packed media.
Today, about two-thirds of American adults are trying to improve the healthfulness of their diets, according to the new International Food Information Council (IFIC) 2007 Food & Health Survey. In addition, the survey shows that:
- 90 percent believe that diet influences health
- 90 percent believe breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but only about half eat breakfast every day
- 75 percent are concerned with their weight
- 56 percent are actively trying to lose weight
- 59 percent are trying to change meal and snack patterns
- 58 percent are trying to reduce portion sizes
- 39 percent rate their own health as excellent or very good
- 12 percent say they eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day
Nutrients of Concern
In the IFIC survey, consumers said they are concerned about the amount and types of fat they consume (72 percent), and the amount of sugar they consume (70 percent). Many are trying to increase consumption of whole grains and fiber (70 percent; 72 percent). More consumers than ever are specifically trying to avoid trans fat. Increasing numbers consider olive oil extremely healthful (46 percent). Almost half said they are trying to limit their caffeine intake.
Compared with just a year ago (the IFIC 2006 survey) more people than ever are concerned about their weight. That’s now three out of four. About 60 percent said they are concerned with their calorie intake, but the IFIC cites a “disconnect” between knowledge and behavior about calories, noting that most people do not know how many calories they need, and very few can accurately estimate their caloric intake. About one in five consumers is not sure how overall calories relate to weight gain. Some consumers believe that calories from specific food components – like fat, carbohydrate, or protein—are responsible for weight gain. Almost four out of five people name their top approach to losing weight as increasing physical activity, which is based on sound science.
The most common way for people to change their dietary habits is to eat more or less of a specific food or beverage, according to the survey. For example, consumers choose specific foods to improve heart health, improve energy or stamina, improve digestive health, improve immune system function, and decrease risk for certain diseases.
Health Claims & Fictitious Nutrients
How gullible are consumers? Would you believe in an invented nutrient if you heard a health claim about it? The FDA says yes, some of us would. In May 2007, the FDA reported on its Experimental Study of Health Claims on Food Packages, whose goal was to find out how we as consumers respond to health claims. In an experiment, the FDA showed packages of pasta with claims such as “Lysoton-rich foods, such as pasta, may reduce the risk of heart disease” to gauge reactions. There is no such thing as lysoton.
The result: eight percent of people said they have heard of lysoton; 20 percent agreed that lysoton would reduce the risk of heart disease. More than half of respondents believed canola oil would be a good source of this fictitious nutrient, and nearly two-thirds thought nuts would be a good source. (At the end of the survey, the FDA informed everyone that this was a fictitious nutrient.)
The research suggests that consumers take food label information seriously, and tend to respond to this style of dietary advice. Also, many consumers recognized that specific nutrients are healthful, and there are sometimes other food sources. For example, most consumers who noted that yogurt was good for preventing osteoporosis also knew that other dairy foods would also be rich in calcium and do likewise. Sometimes, though, consumers don’t know the specifics of why a food is healthful. In these cases, it’s more difficult to realize other foods might convey similar benefits. For example, few respondents knew that high-calcium foods could be beneficial for controlling blood pressure, and therefore did not recognize that dairy products could be healthful for this purpose.
What drives food purchasing decisions? In this study, researchers found nearly three-quarters buy food based on familiarity; and roughly 40 percent buy based on what’s on sale and on health claims on the food package.
In all, the research demonstrates that consumers are hungry for nutrition-related health information and sometimes easy to fool. One of the marketing tricks that crops up in the nutrition supplement business is the claim of a new nutrient, or the discovery that most people are “deficient” in something. The Ask the Dietitian website features a list of red flags that may suggest quackery. For help in sorting out nutrition claims, it’s best to consult a Registered Dietitian or reputable website such as the USDA, www.nutrition.gov site or the American Dietetic Association, www.eatright.org. Remember that the FDA tightly controls health and nutrient claims for food packaging, but nutrition supplements have much looser control.
Taste or Nutrition?
One of the toughest questions in the field of nutrition is this: Do we choose foods for taste, or for sound nutrition? According to the IFIC 2007 survey, taste still wins; 88 percent of consumers purchase food based on taste; 72 percent based on price; 65 percent based on healthfulness; and 55 percent based on convenience. Approximately two-thirds of consumers check the expiration date and the Nutrition Facts before buying a product. About 28 percent look for statements about nutrition benefits of a food.
Overall, research shows that even though Americans know that diet and exercise influence health, our habits—along with the prevalence of obesity and overweight—contradict this. Research from the USDA shows that the average amount of calories available per person in the US food supply has risen about 500 calories in the past few decades, and most people—when offered larger portion sizes—eat the extra food.
Studies show that color and presentation influence how much we eat as well. For example, when there are 10 colors of M&Ms instead of seven, consumers eat 43 percent more! Using larger bowls for healthier foods is a related trick suggested by the USDA for school lunch service; this can promote healthful eating.
On the flip side, portion control packaging (such as “100 calorie packs” of snacks) has gained increasing market share, even though consumers pay much more per ounce for snacks packaged this way, according to The New York Times (July 2007). This underscores our interest in portion control as a form of healthy eating.
Ask the Dietitian - Top Ten Tips to Spot Nutrition Quackery: www.dietitian.com/quack.html
IFIC 2007 Food & Health Survey:
USDA - Insidious Consumption: Surprising Factors That Influence What
We Eat and How Much:
USDA Nutrition Info:
The USDA also cites research in behavior to show that making the default or automatic option a healthful one is likely to improve our food choices. Again, in a school lunch setting, this could mean making whole-grain buns the standard. The USDA says it is easier for a consumer to accept the “status quo” than to expend extra effort to choose something different. When it comes to food, we often take the path of least resistance.
A Mixed Bag
In all, new survey information shows a majority of Americans have nutrition high on their radar; we’re all ears! Yet what we actually eat continues to be a complex behavior, influenced by some confusion in the marketplace. Sometimes we do what is comfortable or familiar before following the best advice. Some consumers can be tricked, so choosing sound sources of nutrition information is important as well. Nutrition facts, nutrient claims, and health claims—all regulated by the FDA—are key resources for consumers in choosing foods.
By Sue Grossbauer