Don’t let their age fool you—at 18 to 24 years old, Gen Z might be the youngest generation of adults, but their perspectives on food are loud and clear. IFIC’s 17th annual 2022 Food and Health Survey offers some especially compelling findings about young Americans’ perceptions and behaviors around food and food-related purchasing decisions, with valuable insights on how Gen Z views health and nutrition.
Perceptions on Health
Somewhat unsurprisingly for the youngest adult generation, most Gen Zers describe their own health as “excellent” or “very good,” with 59% saying so. Their healthy self-perception supports Gen Zers’ definition of healthy food: when asked to select the top attributes that define a healthy food, the most popular definitions among Gen Z included food that was a “good source of nutrients” (35%), food that was “fresh” (34%), and food that contained fruits or vegetables (30%).
When asked about their most sought-after health benefits, it’s evident that Gen Z prioritizes bolstering both their physical and mental health; the top benefits they seek out from foods, beverages, and nutrients were having more energy or less fatigue (with 38% saying this), improved sleep (35%), emotional or mental health (33%), and digestive or gut health (29%).
Seeking out emotional and mental health benefits could be, in part, due to Gen Zers’ self-reported levels of stress. When asked about their stress levels over the past six months, 73% said they felt “very” or “somewhat” stressed, with one-third (33%) saying they were “very” stressed. Among those who sought to improve their nutrition or diet to manage or reduce their stress, over two in five respondents specifically cited practicing mindful or intuitive eating to accomplish stress management; they were also more likely than Gen Xers to say so (41%, versus 11% of Gen Xers). At the same time, Gen Z were more likely to have a low score when using a mindfulness index that analyzed their frequency of engaging in various mindful eating practices (40% of Gen Zers clocked a low score versus 16% of Baby Boomers). As an example, Gen Z were more likely to say they “always” or “often” eat when they’re feeling stressed—and to feel guilty about what they’ve eaten.
This contrast between practicing mindful or intuitive eating to better manage stress, yet having a low mindfulness index score, could reflect the difference between aspirational food-related goals and reality. It’s also worth considering that this generation may still be navigating which stress management technique—or combination of techniques—works best for them. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2018: Stress and Generation Z survey found that only 50% of Gen Z feel like they do enough to manage their stress, while 25% do not feel they do enough. Additionally, 73% reported that they could have used more emotional support in the past year. While mindful or intuitive eating is one way in which some Gen Zers can manage their stress, other segments of this generation may still be exploring what—and how much—support they need to cement healthy coping habits.
Nearly three in four Gen Zers followed a diet or eating pattern in the past year; they were also more likely to do so compared with older generations (72%, versus 51% of Gen X and 29% of Baby Boomers). The most-followed eating patterns among Gen Z were calorie-counting (27%), clean eating (26%), mindful eating (19%) and plant-based eating (19%). Compared with older generations, Gen Z were more likely to be motivated to follow a diet or eating pattern to improve their physical appearance, better manage a health condition, improve their relationship with food, and to follow the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and/or MyPlate recommendations.
Following an eating pattern isn’t the only thing that appeals to Gen Z; snacking also draws notable interest. In fact, 77% of Gen Z report snacking at least once a day, with one-third (34%) saying they snack two times a day. Among Gen Zers who snack, their most common reasons for doing so are being hungry or thirsty (30%), out of boredom (27%), and needing more energy (25%). The appeal of snacking for responding to hunger cues and for energy may be particularly aligned with the life stage of this generation, which balances school, work, extracurriculars, maintaining a social life, and more—all while navigating the entrance into adulthood.
While this generation is more likely to gravitate toward snacking behaviors, they are also likely to steer away from certain foods. For example, Gen Z are two times more likely than older generations to say that they avoid sugars entirely (29%, versus 14% of Millennials, 16% of Gen Xers, and 10% of Baby Boomers).
Grocery Shopping Behaviors
Gen Z is commonly associated with the digital world, and grocery shopping is no exception. Over one-third of Gen Z shop online for groceries at least once a week, and this generation is more likely to do so compared with Baby Boomers (at 35%, versus 11% of Boomers). And not only does a sizeable portion of this population engage in online shopping, but most do so with relative ease. Of those who shop online, 71% find it “very” or “somewhat” easy to locate nutrition information when buying food online. Additionally, over half say that they always or often pay attention to labels on food and beverage packaging when online grocery shopping, and are more likely to do so compared with Baby Boomers (56%, versus 36% of Boomers).
In addition, labels on food and beverage products are highly influential with this generation. Gen Z most regularly buy foods and beverages because they are labeled as “natural” (with 46% saying this), as having “clean ingredients” (34%), and as being “organic” (28%). Compared with Baby Boomers, labels such as “natural,” “clean ingredients,” “bioengineered/containing bioengineered ingredients,” “small carbon footprint/carbon neutral,” and “plant-based” were all more likely to be influential with Gen Z. Their preference for these labels is fairly unsurprising due to this generation’s commitment to environmental sustainability as well as their preference for plant-based and clean eating patterns.
As a generation brought up in a world of activism on social media and growing conversations surrounding climate change, it’s no surprise that Gen Z keeps environmental sustainability top-of-mind. One-third (33%) said that environmental sustainability had a “great” or “somewhat” of an impact on their decision to buy foods and beverages. Gen Z also tends to believe that their personal decisions about food are an important marker when it comes to sustainability, with 50% describing their individual choices about food and beverage purchases as having a “significant” or “moderate” impact on the environment. Additionally, consideration for environmental sustainability extends as far back as the production phase—70% of Gen Zers said they have given “a lot” or “a little” thought to whether or not their foods and beverages were produced in a sustainable way.
Not only does Gen Z express concern about the environment; they are also more aware of their heightened concern. When asked about whether they agree or disagree with the statement “my generation has greater concern about the environmental impact of food choices than other generations,” almost three in four agreed with this statement, and were more likely to do so than older generations (73%, versus 60% of Gen Xers and 44% of Baby Boomers).
Information and Trust
Gen Z expresses great familiarity with nutrition resources from the U.S. government. Nearly six in ten said they know “a lot” or “a fair amount” about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (58%, versus 33% of Baby Boomers). Similarly, 65% reported knowing a lot or a fair amount about USDA’s MyPlate, and were more likely than older populations to say this (65%, versus 49% of Millennials, 37% of Gen Xers, and 28% of Baby Boomers). Gen Z was of elementary- to middle-school age when MyPlate replaced the previous MyPyramid guide in 2011, which is a likely driver of heightened familiarity.
And yet, a high level of familiarity with government nutrition resources doesn’t translate into confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply. Two in five of Gen Zers (41%) report being “not too” or “not at all” confident in the U.S. food supply, and Gen Z are more likely than older generations to say this (41%, versus 28% of Millennials and 23% of Baby Boomers).
When examining trusted information on which foods to eat and avoid, the most highly trusted sources are aligned with that of the general population—Gen Z would highly trust a conversation with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (with 59% ranking this in their top-two choices), a personal healthcare professional (58%), and a conversation with a wellness counselor or health coach (53%). But compared with Boomers, Gen Z were more likely to say they would highly trust a conversation with a fitness professional; a chef or culinary professional; a friend or family member; a news article or headline or news on TV; a food company or manufacturer; and social media influencers or bloggers.
Their greater likelihood to trust friends and family—along with fitness professionals, culinary professionals, and social media influencers—could be due to a gravitation towards people who feel more “real” or authentic. Findings from Edelman’s first annual Gen Z survey show that Gen Z has the highest level of trust towards family members, friends, and ordinary people they perceive as doing good.
From their perceptions on health to their most trusted sources of health information, it’s clear that Gen Z stands out—not only in their behaviors and decisions, but also in the factors that influence them. To learn more, check out our full survey here.
This article was written by Marisa Paipongna.