- Improving and maintaining health are the top incentives for choosing nutrient-dense foods.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and nuts and seeds are most commonly chosen to achieve health goals, while foods like snack bars, dairy alternatives, breakfast cereals, soups and enriched and refined products were less sought-after.
- Six in ten would find “nutrient-dense” labeling helpful for informing food choices.
- Nearly half agree that packaged foods can be nutrient-dense.
“Nutrient density” is a concept that is central to making healthy dietary choices, describing 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). IFIC’s consumer research has shown that while many people have heard of nutrient density, there may be room to grow in terms of its application toward helping people make food choices that benefit their health. This survey set out to learn more about how people think about nutrient density as it relates to making purchasing decisions and connecting the concept to personal health goals.
To set a baseline of understanding about this concept at the start of the survey, respondents were provided with the following definition of “nutrient-dense foods”: “The term ‘nutrient-dense foods’ indicates that there are more beneficial nutrients in a food (e.g., vitamins, minerals, lean protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates) compared to nutrients to limit (e.g., saturated fat, sodium, added sugars, and refined carbohydrates). Examples of nutrient-dense foods include packaged or unpackaged versions of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free milk products, seafood, lean meats, eggs, peas, beans and nuts that have been prepared with little or no added fats, sodium, sugars or refined carbohydrates.”
In addition to demographic information like race/ethnicity, gender and age, this survey also examined the impact that weight status has on perceptions and behaviors related to nutrient density and health. Here are some key takeaways:
After reading the provided definition, nearly four in ten said that nutrient-dense foods should always be part of a healthy diet, while the same number said that they may be part of a healthy diet but that other factors are also important. White people and those with a college degree were more likely to think that nutrient-dense foods should always be part of a healthy diet, while African–Americans people and those without a college degree were more likely to say that they should not be.
More than half said that other purchasing factors are more important than or are equally important to foods being nutrient-dense. These factors include whether a food is processed (61% more important than or same level of importance as being nutrient-dense), whether it’s made with GMO/bioengineered ingredients (60%), and if it is produced locally (56%), organic (54%) or packaged (54%).
Over half seek out nutrient-dense foods at least some of the time. Fifty-five percent of survey takers said they look for nutrient-dense options when choosing foods or beverages, with 17% doing this all the time and 38% doing so at least some of the time. Nearly one in six (16%) said they never look for nutrient-dense foods. People under the age of 45, those with a college degree and those trying to maintain their weight were more likely to say they always seek out nutrient-dense options, while those over 45 and people who don’t think about their weight status were more likely to say they never do so.
Improving and maintaining health are the top incentives for choosing nutrient-dense foods. Of the people who said that they seek out nutrient-dense foods, 44% said they do so to improve their long-term health and 36% said it’s because they want to improve or maintain their overall health. Less-common incentives for choosing nutrient-dense foods included having a health care provider advise people to do so (15%) and to set an example for their household (14%). However, younger people (less than 45 years old) were more likely to select wanting to set an example for their household.
Fresh fruits and vegetables (61%) are the most common nutrient-dense foods chosen to achieve health outcomes, followed by lean meat (47%) and nuts and seeds (46%). Over one in three (36%) said that they choose 100% juice and protein from plants to help them achieve their desired health outcomes, while fewer choose foods like snack bars (24%), dairy alternatives (22%), breakfast cereals (21%), soups (20%) and enriched and refined products (11%). Those in the oldest age group (age 65+) were more likely (compared to their younger counterparts) to select foods from the top-three categories along with dairy milk and yogurt and whole grain products. People trying to lose weight were more likely to turn to fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and whole grain products to achieve their top health outcomes.
Nearly four in ten are most likely to seek out nutrient-dense foods at dinner; nearly three in ten are most likely to do so at breakfast. When asked at which eating occasion they would be most likely to seek out nutrient-dense foods, dinner was the top choice (37%), followed by breakfast (29%), lunch (25%), snacks (8%) and dessert (1%). This is a slight shift from the results of IFIC’s first survey on nutrient density, in which we found that breakfast was the most nutrient-dense meal for many. However, the questions were asked slightly differently (the November 2019 survey asked survey takers to rank their choices, while this one asked them to select just one), a possible explanation of the differences between the two outcomes.
Six in ten would find “nutrient-dense” labeling helpful for informing food choices. Consistent with other IFIC research demonstrating a hunger for more information on how to make healthy choices, 61% said they would find labels indicative of nutrient density at least somewhat helpful for informing food choices.
Nearly half agree that packaged foods can be nutrient-dense; four in ten are neutral. When provided the statement, “Packaged foods, like those found in the center aisles of the grocery store, can be nutrient dense,” 18% strongly agreed and 28% agreed somewhat. Forty percent neither agreed nor disagreed, while just 13% somewhat or strongly disagreed. Men, those under age 45, people with a college degree and those trying to maintain their weight were more likely to somewhat or strongly agree, while women and those trying to lose weight were more likely to disagree.
One thousand interviews were conducted among adults ages 18+ from June 5–8, 2020, and were weighted to ensure proportional results. The margin of error was ±3.1% at the 95% confidence level.
This research was supported with funding from General Mills. This article was written by Ali Webster, PhD, RD.