Consumer Health Behavior and Attitudes: What They Say is Not Always What They Do

By Suzy Badaracco, Foodable Contributor

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There is disharmony between consumer attitudes about health issues when compared to their actual eating behaviors. How this conflict affects their food choices, which in turn translates into flavor trends, is complex, but not impossible to unravel. There are layers that must be understood individually before they can come together as a cohesive pattern. Layer 1 is the basic understanding of what would cause someone to say one thing and do another. Layer 2 involves understanding current consumer health drivers, and Layer 3 cross ties the first two layers with flavor trends, and helps explain which flavor trends are standing in the spotlight for consumers.

Layer 1: Consumer Claim vs. Consumer Action

There are two main reasons consumers say one thing and do another. The first is simple: They lie. Some common examples of this include:

  • Misrepresenting how much or how little they actually paid for an item 
  • Lying about buying something against a partner’s, peer’s, or parent’s wishes 
  • Lying to hide embarrassment or guilt
  • Anticipating “correct answers” or responding to leading questions

The second, more interesting reason words and actions don’t match is consumer disconnect. 

Examples include:

  • Ignorance
  • Fear 
  • Denial
  • Misinformation, which is worse than ignorance since it is based on falsehoods 
  • Subconsciously influenced by peers, social media — not fact-based
  • Cherry picked data — media, celebrity, or other slanted view on a topic

When examining health trends, research reveals a host of consumer disconnects. 

Here are a few:

  • Harvard reported that teens underestimated calories in fast food meals by 34%, parents by 23%, and adults by 20%
  • Hartman reported that 57% said it’s very important / important that snacks are healthy, however, the most mentioned snacks were chips and soda
  • University of Ulster found subjects ate 3% more when foods were labeled ‘low fat’ or ‘low cal'
  • Caravan reported that consumers named meat and water as good fiber sources
  • University of Nebraska found that 51% of parents with overweight or obese children said their kids were normal weight, while 14% of parents with normal-weight kids said kids were underweight
  • Monash University found that 50% of consumers self-reporting non-celiac gluten sensitivity had no symptoms to justify following a gluten-free diet — 25% more showed no improvement with a gluten-free diet

Layer 2: Understanding Current Consumer Health Drivers

The current health drivers for consumers fall into six groups: Obesity, Cognitive Function, Simplify, Prevention, Control, and Distrust. Obesity concerns drive consumers to focus on the snacking trend, dining out behaviors, portion options in restaurants, satiety, and their kids’ diets. Cognitive function covers concerns over stress, sleep, memory, depression, energy, focus, and relaxation. Simplicity is steering consumers toward unprocessed foods, convenience, and foods they perceive to be “naturally healthy.” Prevention has to do with delaying the onset of disease states, which is why there is a rise in flexitarians, joint and bone health concern, desire for fiber and grains, and vision health. Control is more about what to cut out of the diet and is the cause of certain foods being villainized in the media or by consumers. Controlling digestion, calories, their kids’ diets, cholesterol, and satiety are among the drivers. But eating seasonal or local, cutting salt, sugar or fat, and using social media are also ways consumers empower themselves. The last branch is Distrust. Many consumers distrust organic, “natural,” “free from,” sustainability and health claims. They buy these items hoping the food industry isn’t lying to them.

Layer 3: Tying It All Together

Health trends often act as a Courier to food trends. Couriers shuttle trends in from neighboring industries or focuses. Some of the Factions (trend families) that are born from consumer health trends include the desire for scratch prep, meatless dishes, the snack revolution, global breakfast items, single estate or farm foods, seasonal and local items, and pickled, fermented and foraged foods. Each has a real or perceived health value to consumers and thus are thrust into the spotlight.

Foods with health ties show up across categories. Seasonings host pickling, ginger, honey, tea, and miso. Fruits and vegetables are showcasing historical varieties such as kale, pumpkin and coconut, but also extremes like seaweed, kimchee, and wild greens. The “tree hugger” of the sets is dairy, with buttermilk back in the limelight, along with burrata, global yogurts, and farmstead cheeses. Proteins are seeing extreme swings with beans, wild game, duck, rabbit, skin, insects and even fatal species (think fugu). Grains act as the great interpreters, as they tend to be the least threatening thing on the plate. So whether it is a single grain or global breads, noodles, or rice being featured, they have familiarity consumers respond to. And finally, beverage has a Type-A personality. Culinary cocktails, pressed juice, ancient tea, sipping vinegar, kefir, and kombucha all have ties to health, history, and global influences.

Short-lived food or flavor trends usually occur because they are “cool,” but unsupported by other trends. For a trend to enjoy a longer lifecycle, it must cross tie to other trends already on the ground running, such as consumer and health trends. Tethering a trend grounds it and gives it a home on the plate.