Tamika Sims

Food Choices in the Information Age

Many of us know that farming and agriculture allow us to have a bevy of food choices in restaurants and grocery stores. But what is on our minds when we make food and beverage purchases? Factors such as hunger and meal-planning likely come into play, but the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2018 Food and Health Survey reveals that there is more to food shopping than just those two considerations. US Consumers also take many other “food factors” such as safety, labels and food production methods into account.

While our data show that taste, price and healthfulness remain “kings” when it comes to what drives our choices, the food-choice story doesn’t stop there. Perceptions of labels, sustainability, foodborne illness, to name a few, can also impact our decisions.

Consumers Are Confused

First off, we found that not all of us wear a badge of confidence while food shopping. Consistent with past surveys, our 2018 research revealed that while the majority of consumers trust information from a registered dietician (71 percent), healthcare professional (66 percent) or a wellness counselor (56 percent) about what foods they should eat, often these are not the people they actually receive information from. Consumers end up getting most of the information from a conversation with a friend or family member.

While some mothers, uncles and neighbors may have access to credible information on food, many do not. As you might imagine, this can lead to confusion. When we asked people if there is a lot of conflicting information about what foods to eat or avoid, 80 percent agreed. Of those consumers, 59 percent said the conflicting information makes them doubt the choices they make.

Tamika Sims, PhD Director, Food Technology Communications, International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC)
Tamika Sims, PhD Director, Food Technology Communications, International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC)
Tamika Sims, PhD,
Director, Food Technology Communications,
International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC)

The Label Made Me Do It

Not too surprisingly, US consumers pay attention to labels when making purchases in stores and markets. We found that 37 percent look for the label “natural,” 36 percent seek out “no added hormones or steroids,” and 29 percent are looking for “organic” labels. Conversely, when making choices at a restaurant, consumers aren’t looking for these labels as often. Only 26 percent look for the “natural” label in restaurants, while 15 percent look for “no added hormones or steroids” and 20 percent seek out “organic.” Interestingly, a hefty 45 percent of consumers are not looking for any labels at all while they are dining out.

Sustainable + Safe = Supper

Beyond label cues, we discovered that the US consumers desire other food attributes while they stroll grocery aisles and peruse markets. According to our 2018 survey, 59 percent of consumers said it is important that food be sustainably produced. This is higher than 2017, when 50 percent of consumers sought this food attribute.

When we asked how consumers define sustainable food production, the top-ranked factor was “reducing the amount of pesticides” (65 percent), followed by “ensuring an affordable food supply” (43 percent).

Also similar to past years, 68 percent of consumers are confident in the safety of our food supply, and 43 percent have changed their eating habits due to a food safety concern. When we asked about consumers’ top food safety issues, 56 percent cited “carcinogens or cancer-causing chemicals,” while 54 percent ranked both “foodborne illness from bacteria” and “chemicals in food” as top concerns, with 47 percent concerned about “pesticides/pesticide residues.”

But where specifically do US consumers get their food safety information? News articles or headlines rank highest (25 percent), followed by 14 percent who get information from a friend or family member and 13 percent from a government agency such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – almost double the 7 percent in 2017.

Closing Thoughts

While many consumers might feel confused about the food choices they make, it is clear that there are some definite characteristics that are top of mind when they plan to prep their next family dinner or pack their next lunch. With the food landscape evolving to give consumers even more choices, we look forward to what new insights await us in the 14th edition of our Food and Health Survey.

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