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Changing consumer trends initiate shift in understanding of healthy food

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“In today’s environment, the terms health and diet are rampant,” said Roxi Beck of the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) during a Feb. 27 webinar that summarized research on consumer health. “Many believe health has to do with dieting or restriction.”
While health means eliminating a food or certain group of food for some consumers, other consumers perceive health as a focus on increasing consumption of one area, for example fruit or protein.

“Altogether, each person who defines ‘healthy’ comes to us with a different definition,” she said. “Most of the time, people have a specific goal when they think about health.”

Focusing on a trend that they’ve noticed in the past few years, Beck said CFI is focusing on opportunities to capitalize on to help consumers with concerns and skepticism that they have about their food. 

“Health is very broadly defined, and it’s no wonder, with all of the different labeling and marketing claims that are out there, consumers have broad definitions of health that is focused on labels,” Beck said. 

Recent trends

While labeling claims have existed for many years, a new trend has gained traction with consumers lately – “free from.”

“Whether it’s GMO-free, sugar-free, any sort of indication that we’re opting out of something – even on organic or natural foods – that seems like a risk and seems closer to how nature intended, consumers are drawn to this,” Beck said. “There is a 21 percent increase in this trend, and we don’t expect it to go away soon.” 

CFI’s YouTube channel “CFI Street Talk” goes directly to consumers on the street with questions about how they view the food system. A recent video asked consumers whether they prefer food with 30 grams of sugar of 10 grams of sugar plus five grams of added sugar.

“This seems like a pretty easy equation from a caloric standpoint, but it has become highly polarized,” Beck commented, noting sugar has become a hot topic of conservation in terms of health lately. “We know that sugar, whether it is natural or perceived unnatural indicates people’s preference in this conversation.”

While the answers may seem simply, when the information of “added sugar” is inserted, consumers chose 30 grams of sugar, citing concerns about additives that trigger health issues, noting that “additives” cause concern. 

“More and more, we’re seeing consumers say, ‘They’re adding in the other sugar for a reason, and I don’t want to eat that reason,’” she said. “This might cause us to giggle, but it points to other research we’ve done, as well.”

Beck points consumer concern as a symptom of the size and scale of the food industry, coupled with the idea that big is bad as it relates to the corporate food system. 

“These are not simple conversations,” she added.

Consumer research

CFI has engaged in consumer research for over 10 years to isolate what consumers think and feel as it relates to the food system. 

Their research often strives for a representative sample of the population, across a variety of age groups, income brackets, geographic region and food habits. They have also focused on several consumer groups, in particular  moms, millenials, foodies and early adopters. 

“One of the things we do is we have consumers rate their level of concern about topics in the food system,” Beck explained. “More importantly we ask areas about life experience in general.”

Top concerns including rising healthcare costs, which was targeted by 76 percent of consumers as a concern. The next three top concerns marked by over 60 percent of respondents – affordability of food, keeping healthy food affordable and food safety – all relate to the food system. 

In particular, moms, millenials, foodies and early adopters marked all of those issues with a higher level of concern.

“We see the people who have a higher level of concern are the ones who are more likely to purchase groceries and are decision makers in their family,” Beck said. “These people think about food on a consistent basis, so there’s opportunity here.” 

Sharing information

Because food is a concern, foodies and early adopters in particular are actively seeking information on their food. 

“Because they are actively seeking information, making sure our communications targets these people and allow us to connect with them is important. We also have to consider what channels we connect with them through to meet them where they are at,” Beck said.

Thinking about these concerns, Beck said producers should consider whether they have a policy around communicating about food health and affordability, whether they connect with these audiences and who is the right messenger for these topics. 


When asked to rate their level of agreement on a series of statements, Beck noted almost 30 percent of the population feels very pressured to buy food with healthy attributes, particularly when eating with family members. 

The results also vary by groups. Millenials felt more pressure to eat healthy, regardless of who they are with, as do people who have a higher level of formal education. 

In general, 42 percent of people believe the food system is moving in the right direction, where 24 percent disagree with this statement. While useful, Beck noted it is difficult to tell why people believe the food system is moving in the right direction. 

“We can’t unpack that with just one question, but it’s good to know, in general, we are headed in the right direction,” she said.

Other opinions shows 37 percent of people believe food grown organically is more healthy, 43 percent are more concerned about healthy eating than a year ago and 50 percent aren’t confident they are making healthy food choices.

“This is an opportunity,” Beck commented. “There is lots of information there, but half of consumers aren’t confident they’re making healthy decisions.”

Consumers also mention simple concern – not indicating whether they have enough knowledge or if they have made a decision on the topic – about hormones, artificial ingredients, antibiotics, genetically modified food.

“We see a focus on these trends and we see opportunity to talk about these topics,” Beck said.

Look for more about how consumers shop and get more information about their food in next week’s Roundup. 

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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