Nutrient Density: Consumer Understanding, Perceptions and Behaviors

Nutrient Density: Consumer Understanding, Perceptions and Behaviors

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Many Americans make food and beverage decisions every day with the goal of eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. Most people are generally aware that we should seek foods that are rich in healthful components and aim to be observant of compounds that can be less-than-healthful in large amounts.

“Nutrient density” is a term that describes this concept—it incorporates the balance of beneficial nutrients in a food (like vitamins, minerals, lean protein, healthy fats and fiber) compared with nutrients to limit (like saturated fat, sodium, added sugars and refined carbohydrates).

The federal 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans strongly emphasizes the importance of choosing nutrient-dense foods and beverages, using the term throughout the report. But what do consumers know about nutrient density? And how, if at all, do they apply it to their own eating habits and purchasing decisions? The IFIC Foundation set out to understand more in the Consumer Understanding and Influence of Nutrient Density Survey. Here are some key takeaways:

Nearly two in three people have heard of nutrient density, but far fewer can explain what it means. Sixty-four percent of survey respondents said that they had either heard the term before or at least thought they knew what it means, but slightly less than one in four said that they could explain nutrient density to someone else. Thirty-six percent said that they had never heard of the term before. “These results indicate that although nutrient density is a term that many have heard, there is a gap in understanding,” says Joseph Clayton, CEO of the IFIC Foundation.

There is a split in consumer confidence in identifying nutrient-dense foods. Even though almost two in three people have heard of nutrient density, only 43% said that they were very or somewhat confident in their ability to identify them. A similar percentage of people in the survey (42%) said they were not very or not at all confident in their ability to identify nutrient-dense options.

Taste and price remain the top factors driving food purchasing decisions, while nutrient density ranks lower. This finding is consistent with our 2019 Food and Health Survey results. In the present survey, when asked to rank attributes of foods in terms of their impact on purchasing behaviors, 58% of people ranked “taste” as their first or second option, followed by “price” (45%). “Nutrient density” came in at just 15%, surpassing only “environmental sustainability” (10%) in the rankings. There was also a divide in importance of healthfulness versus nutrient density: healthfulness was ranked as an impactful factor by 35% of survey takers, demonstrating that people do not necessarily equate nutrient density with healthfulness.

Budget-friendliness and ease of identification are top considerations for increasing nutrient-dense food intake. When survey respondents were asked what would help them eat more nutrient-dense foods, 33% said that they would increase consumption if they were more budget-friendly, followed by if they were easier to identify (29%). Improving taste (26%) and knowing more about nutrient density (23%) also ranked highly.

People are most likely to seek out nutrient-dense options at breakfast. Breakfast indeed may be the most important meal of the day when it comes to a focus on nutrient density. Seventy-two percent of survey takers ranked “breakfast” as their first or second choice of eating occasion in which they were likely to seek out nutrient-dense foods. This was followed by lunch (57%) and dinner (49%), indicating decreasing focus on nutrient density as the day goes on. Plausible reasons for this may include time limitations and the stresses of daily schedules, leading to a reduced ability as the day progresses to devote attention to nutrient-dense options. In addition, people are not necessarily seeking out healthy snacks or dessert options on a regular basis: at 15% and 7%, respectively, they ranked lowest among all eating occasions.

People are more likely to look for beneficial nutrients over nutrients to limit when identifying nutrient-dense foods. Vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber were the top options listed on the Nutrient Facts label that would be considered when trying to identify nutrient-dense foods. The amount of saturated fat and sodium were the lowest-ranking choices, with just 16% and 14% of people selecting these options, respectively. “In other words,” Clayton says, “nutrient density is all about the balance between beneficial nutrients and those that should be limited, and it appears that people are more attuned to the upside of a food’s nutritional profile rather than focusing on its less healthful components.”

There were a few significant distinctions between males and females and younger and older age groups. Men were more likely than women to have heard or seen the term “nutrient density” from many different media sources and from a healthcare professional. Accordingly, they also reported being more confident in their ability to identify and explain the term. Those under age 45 stood out in many of their responses as compared with older age groups, which is a recurring trend in many of IFIC Foundation’s consumer research surveys. They were more likely to say they feel confident in identifying and explaining the term as compared with those older than 45; and when compared with their older counterparts, those under 45 were more likely to cite environmental sustainability as a top driver for food purchasing.


One thousand interviews were conducted among adults ages 18+ from September 26-27th, 2019, and were weighted to ensure proportional results. The margin of error was ±3.1% at the 95% confidence level.