Consumers Remain Disconnected from Their Food: 2008 Food & Health Survey Gauges Consumer Attitudes on Nutrition and Food Safety

The 2008 Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes toward Food, Nutrition & Health, commissioned by the International Food Information Council Foundation, is the third annual national quantitative study designed to gain insights from consumers on these important topics. The research provides the opportunity to see how consumers view their own diets, their efforts to improve them, and their understanding of the food components in their diets and how to safely prepare food. In order to develop effective nutrition and food safety communications that would help consumers implement behavioral changes, health professionals, educators, and others can learn what issues are most important to consumers where confusion is greatest, and where educational efforts are needed.

The following are key findings from the 2008 Survey with comparisons to the results from the 2006 and 2007 editions of the Food & Health Survey.

Overall Health: Americans’ perception of their health status continues to show improvement with 39 percent indicating their health is “excellent” or “very good” compared to 33 percent in 2006. Although there was no real change from year to year, Americans’ degree of satisfaction with their health status remained relatively high with 59 percent indicating that they are “extremely satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied.”

Weight: Americans’ concern with their weight appears to be a very strong factor influencing the decision to make a dietary change. Seventy-five percent say they are concerned with their weight, compared to 74 percent in 2007 and 66 percent in 2006. In addition, 69 percent of those who made a change to their diet cite their reason is “to lose weight,” and 57 percent say they are actively “trying to lose weight.”
Diet and Physical Activity: Two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) reported making changes to improve the healthfulness of their diet. The specific types of dietary changes they most often reported are “changing the portion sizes of the meals or snacks I consume” (60 percent) and “changing the number of calories I consume” (57 percent). In addition, 52 percent of those trying to lose or maintain their weight reported “increased physical activity” as a specific change in 2008.

And while 57 percent of Americans who are trying to lose or maintain their weight say they are making an effort “to reduce the number of calories” they consume, there still appears to be an important disconnect between this reported behavior and Americans’ general knowledge about calories. For example, only 15 percent of respondents correctly estimated the recommended number of calories per day for a person of their age, height, physical activity level, and weight; only 31 percent correctly understand that calories from any source contribute equally to potential weight gain; and 44 percent report that they do not balance diet and physical activity to manage their weight (calories consumed versus calories expended).

Meal Occasions: Similar to the 2007 survey, breakfast was named by 92 percent of consumers as the most important meal of the day, followed by dinner (89 percent) and lunch (83 percent); however, less than half (46 percent) of consumers say they eat breakfast seven days per week. In the 2008 survey, consumers who believe that eating breakfast is most important but do not eat it everyday cite several “barriers” including “not hungry right after I wake up” (59 percent) and “not enough time” (54 percent).

Snacks are also an important part of most Americans’ days, with nearly all Americans (94 percent) consuming at least one snack per day.

Foods and Beverages with Added Health and Wellness Benefits: While “taste” and “price” continue to have the greatest impact on Americans’ decisions to buy foods and beverages, the importance of “healthfulness” remained stable after increasing in 2007 (62 percent in 2008 versus 65 percent in 2007 and 58 percent in 2006). When given a list of potential changes to improve the healthfulness of their diet, Americans indicated they are increasing (37 percent) and decreasing (21 percent) their consumption of a specific type of food and/or beverage.

Sixty percent or more of Americans either somewhat or strongly believe that certain foods and beverages can provide multiple benefits (for example, heart health). As in 2007, more than 80 percent of all Americans say they are currently consuming or would be interested in consuming foods and/or beverages for such benefits.

Dietary Fats: Seventy percent of Americans are concerned with the amount of fat they consume and 68 percent say they are concerned with the type of fat they consume. Continued concern over trans fat appears to be an important contributor. Awareness of trans fat grew to 91 percent versus 87 percent in 2007 and 81 percent in 2006. Fifty-nine percent of Americans who use the Nutrition Facts Panel say they use trans fat information on the panel and 79 percent of Americans who are aware of it say they rated trans fat as either “not at all healthful” or “not very healthful,” up from 64 percent in 2006.

While Americans know that type of fat is important, knowledge of the types of fats that dietary guidance recommends consuming, including mono- and polyunsaturated fats, is limited. For instance, awareness of both of these healthful fats (63 percent for monounsaturated fats and 71 percent for polyunsaturated fats) is low compared to others. However, the number of Americans who rate monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats as either “somewhat healthful” or “extremely healthful” has increased to 28 percent and 23 percent respectively from 16 percent and 15 percent in 2006.

Sugars and Carbohydrates: Americans continue to be concerned with the amount of sugar they consume (69 percent in 2008 versus 70 percent in 2007 and 62 percent in 2006). Among Americans who use the Nutrition Facts panel, they look for information about sugar more often (68 percent compared to 63 percent in 2007 and 67 percent in 2006). Although there was no significant change in Americans’ concern over the amount of carbohydrates they consume, concern with the type of carbohydrates they consume remained high at 52 percent in 2008, compared to 46 percent in 2006.

Low-Calorie Sweeteners: More Americans who are aware of low-calorie sweeteners report they are trying to consume less aspartame (43 percent), saccharin (45 percent), and sucralose (44 percent) in 2008 compared to 2007. However, there is no significant difference in approach to consumption of these low-calorie sweeteners when comparing this year’s responses to those from 2006. In addition, 44 percent of Americans believe that low-calorie sweeteners can play a role in weight loss or weight management.
Caffeine Consumption: When asked to describe their level of caffeine consumption, 64 percent of Americans say they “consume caffeine in moderation.” Twenty-two percent describe themselves as consuming “more caffeine than the average person,” and 14 percent say they have “eliminated caffeine” from their diets.

Food Additives/Colors: Consumers were asked to answer a new question this year about their beliefs pertaining to the accuracy of several statements about food additives/colors. The result was that 85 percent of Americans believe food additives can provide at least one of the following benefits: they can extend the freshness of certain foods/act as a preservative (68 percent); add color to food products (65 percent); help keep or improve the flavor of food products (61 percent); and reduce the presence of harmful bacteria in food products (36 percent).

Safe Food Preparation: New to this year’s survey were questions regarding safe food preparation at home. Eighty-two percent of consumers say they are confident in their ability to safely prepare foods at home, but that confidence does not match reported practices. Almost all Americans (96 percent) say they are regularly taking at least one food safety precaution, such as washing hands with soap and water, when cooking, preparing, and consuming food products. However, fewer report following key basic food safety practices, such as using a different cutting board for each type of food (48 percent) and using a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of meat and poultry items (29 percent). A majority of Americans (79 percent) are confident in their ability to understand and follow microwave oven meal cooking instructions, but only 15 percent check their microwave wattage and only 7 percent use a food thermometer for microwaved foods.

Consumer Use of Information Sources: In addition to the information gathered on the Nutrition Facts panel and the food label, consumers were asked about their awareness and use of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) MyPyramid food guidance system. Eighty-seven percent of Americans say they are aware of MyPyramid and 26 percent of individuals report having used MyPyramid in some way.

The full survey report conducted by Cogent Research, Cambridge, MA, is available on the IFIC Web site, where one can also view a Web cast of the findings.