We often hear about the importance of making healthy food choices, but how do Americans define a “healthy food”? And how much of an influence does healthfulness have when we decide what foods to buy and eat? IFIC’s 17th annual 2022 Food and Health Survey explored Americans’ perspectives and behaviors surrounding the term “healthy”—read on for the ways this concept impacts our food choices.
The Influence of “Healthfulness”
Over the past decade, the idea of “healthfulness” has consistently ranked as the third most influential purchase driver for foods and beverages, and this year was no exception. Sixty percent of survey respondents said that healthfulness had “somewhat” of or “a great” impact on their decision to buy foods and beverages, falling behind taste (80%) and price (68%). Subgroups that were more likely to say that healthfulness was impactful included Millennials (at 65%, versus 53% of Gen Zers and 56% of Boomers); those with an annual income of $75,000 or more (73%, versus 50% of those who earn less than $35,000 a year and 56% of those who earn between $35,000 and $74,000 a year); parents of children under 18 (71%, versus 54% of those who do not have children under 18); and those who buy groceries online more than once a month (67%, versus 51% of those who never buy online groceries).
Definitions of Healthy Food
Despite Americans’ consistent emphasis on healthfulness in their food choices, this year’s survey also makes clear that there is a great deal of variation in consumer definitions and perceptions of “healthy.” When survey respondents were asked to select up to five different attributes that define a healthy food, the most popular responses were “fresh” (with 37% selecting this), “low in sugar” (32%), and “good source of protein” (29%). These top choices were followed by “contains fruits or vegetables (or includes these ingredients)” (28%), “good source of nutrients” (27%), and “natural” (26%).
Why are these specific attributes commonly associated in our minds with a food or beverage being healthy? Let’s explore each of these terms further.
Fresh and Natural
The gravitation towards attributes such as “fresh” and “natural” may be driven by the perception that foods without these traits are unhealthy. For example, when survey respondents were given a scenario in which there were two products with the same Nutrition Facts label—but one was fresh and the other was frozen—48% said it was “somewhat” or “highly” likely that the fresh product was healthier than the frozen product. Only 10% said it was likely that the frozen product was healthier. This trend also surfaced when survey respondents were given a similar scenario in which one product had “all natural” on the label and the other was not labeled as such. In this example, over half (51%) said that it was “somewhat” or “highly” likely that the “all natural” product was healthier than the one that did not have this label; only 10% said the opposite.
The association between “healthy” and “natural” is particularly evident when we take a closer look at shopping behaviors. When respondents were asked which products they regularly buy because of certain labels, “natural” topped the list, with two in five (39%) saying they regularly buy products with this label. Interestingly, Millennials were more likely to say that “natural” was an attribute of a healthy food and to say that they regularly buy products because they are labeled as natural. Among those who purchase products because of this label, the most popular reason chosen for doing so was that “natural foods are generally healthier for you” (54%).
Low in Sugar
The popularity of “low in sugar” as a marker of a healthy food is not surprising, as nearly three in four (73%) report trying to limit or avoid sugars. Boomers were more likely to select “low in sugar” as a top attribute of a healthy food (at 38%, versus 24% of Gen Zers and 27% of Millennials) and were also more likely to say they try to limit sugars in their diet (61%, versus 46% of Gen Zers).
Considering that protein topped the list of most sought-after nutrients in this year’s survey (with 59% trying to consume it), it’s not surprising that Americans connect the idea of “healthy” with a “good source of protein.” Compared with the 2021 survey, more Americans say that they are eating more protein from whole-plant sources (with 31% saying they eat more now), poultry or eggs (27%), dairy (25%), other plant-based dairy alternatives (23%), and fortified soy-based milk and yogurt (18%).
Fruits, Vegetables, and Nutrients
Similarly, the popularity of the choices “good source of nutrients” and “contains fruits or vegetables (or includes these ingredients)” as attributes of a healthy food is somewhat predictable, as nutrition education resources commonly emphasize a sufficient intake of fruits, vegetables, and vitamins and minerals. Fruits and vegetables were consistently among the most common food choices cited by Americans for achieving each of the following health benefits: energy or less fatigue, weight loss or weight management, digestive health and gut health, heart and cardiovascular health, and immune health.
Americans also report actively trying to consume a variety of nutrients, which can further drive their associations regarding what’s considered healthy. Over half (57%) of survey respondents reported trying to consume vitamin D, with vitamin C (56%), fiber (53%), and calcium (53%) close behind.
From “natural” to being a “good source of protein,” it’s clear that among consumers, there is no single definition of a “healthy” food. To learn more, check out the 2022 Food and Health Survey here.
This article was reviewed by and includes contributions from Ali Webster, PhD, RD.