Food is an essential part of our lives and consumer interest in foods that provide health and wellness benefits beyond basic nutrition, or functional foods, is thriving. From whole grains for heart health, to calcium and vitamin D for bone health, and to probiotics for digestive health, a majority of Americans believe that foods have specific health benefits and remain interested in learning more. However, there are multiple barriers consumers face when trying to include these foods in their diets.
In 2011, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) commissioned its seventh survey studying Americans’ awareness of and attitudes toward functional foods. While all foods are functional because they provide nutrients or other substances that promote growth or furnish energy, functional foods move beyond necessity to provide additional health benefits that may reduce risk of disease or promote optimal health. These foods can include the naturally healthful components in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fiber in certain breads and cereals, calcium in milk, and fortified foods and beverages such as vitamin D fortified milk. Functional foods can also include dietary supplements.
This quantitative survey has been conducted every two to three years since 1998. The 2011 survey was conducted with 1,000 U.S. adults 18 years and older. Respondents were invited to participate based on gender, education, age, and ethnicity to allow the findings to be representative of the American population, and the final data set was weighted by level of education. This year’s findings continue to provide consumer insights into their interests and perceptions about the roles of foods and beverages in promoting health and wellness. Similar to previous surveys, the latest round of research was designed to measure and track changes in consumer awareness and interest in functional foods, and to explore how awareness levels of food and health-benefit pairings impact behavior and perceptions. A new objective for the 2011 survey was to measure consumers’ perceived barriers to consuming functional foods.
Americans Attitudes toward Health
Overall, the majority of U.S. consumers are confident that they have control over their health, and they cite cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and stroke, as their top health concern (46 percent). This is followed closely by weight (32 percent) and cancer (22 percent). When it comes to factors that can impact health such as exercise, food and nutrition and family health history, Americans believe that food and nutrition play the greatest role in promoting health.
Consumer Understanding of Functional Foods
The vast majority of Americans (87 percent) continue to agree with the over-arching concept of functional foods: that there are certain foods and beverages that can provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition. When consumers were asked unprompted to name a food and its associated benefit, 90 percent of Americans are able to do so. While this number has remained relatively stable over the past few iterations of the survey, it represents a significant increase from 1998 when only 77 percent of Americans were able to name a food and its associated benefit. Of note, Americans continue to name foods or groups of foods (for example, fruits and vegetables or fish) and their benefits, rather than specific food components such as antioxidants or omega-3 fatty acids. The top ten functional foods named by consumers include: fruits and vegetables; fish and fish oil; dairy, including milk and yogurt; herbs and spices; whole grains; fiber; meat and poultry; tea; nuts; and vitamins and minerals.
Consumer attitudes remain positive regarding foods and beverages with added health and wellness benefits with between 66 to 82 percent of Americans either “somewhat” or “strongly” believing in a stated benefit. The following are some of the top benefits Americans believe foods and beverages can provide: contribution to healthy growth and development in children (82 percent), improved bone health (81 percent), maintenance of overall health and wellness (80 percent), improved immune system function (79 percent), contribution to a healthy body weight (79 percent), and improved heart health (79 percent).
Awareness of Specific Diet and Health Relationships
Questions were asked in this section related to 35 different diet and health relationships to determine consumers’ awareness of specific foods components that may provide health benefits and consumer behavior regarding consumption. The top food components with health benefits selected by consumers in the survey include calcium (92 percent) and vitamin D (90 percent) for bone health, protein (87 percent) and B vitamins (86 percent) for overall well-being, omega-3 fatty acids (85%) for heart health, and probiotics (81 percent) and fiber (79 percent) for digestive health. More detailed findings related to consumption of food components for various health benefits can be found here.
Challenges to Getting Functional Foods on the Plate
While consumers are very positive toward functional foods, over the past few iterations of the survey there have been no significant increases in reported consumption of various functional components for health benefits. In order to understand why consumption has not increased, we measured consumers’ perceived barriers to adding more functional foods to their diet. When asked about specific barriers, consumers most commonly perceive expense and taste as their biggest hurdles. Consumers also stress that availability of these foods and convenience in finding them affect frequency of consumption.
Although consumers face barriers, their beliefs about functional foods can positively influence future consumption. Specifically, consumers are most likely to agree that consumption of functional foods can make a meaningful impact on their health, and that the added benefits in these foods provide a compelling reason to consume them more often. Not surprisingly, Americans are looking to trusted health professionals and physicians for advice about what foods may provide benefits.
Filling the Plate with Functional Foods
Americans do believe that they have control over their health and they are interested in learning more about functional foods. People are getting information about foods that can promote health from a variety of sources, yet medical professionals, including registered dietitians, remain some of the most influential resources that could compel someone to try a functional food. Whether whole grains for heart health, calcium and vitamin D for bone health or protein for weight management, Americans are interested in functional foods and are looking for science-based and practical advice that addresses the common barriers preventing them from consuming these foods more often. Our ultimate challenge is to find easy ways to help consumers sustain healthful lifestyles overtime. Nutrition communicators can use the findings to develop messages that can bridge the gap between consumers’ interest and desire to improve their health and understanding the necessary changes in diet and lifestyle and how to implement them. However, one thing is clear: we will not be successful filling consumers’ plates with functional foods if we cannot find ways to connect taste and convenience with sensible food choices.