IFIC Survey: From “Chemical-sounding” to “Clean”: Consumer Perspectives on Food Ingredients

Download the survey results here

Highlights

  • Nearly 2 in 3 say that ingredients have at least a moderate influence on their food and beverage purchases.
  • When shopping, on-package ingredient information sources are far more popular than online sources and personal contacts.
  • Most people say they’re paying more attention to ingredient lists, choosing clean ingredients and avoiding chemical-sounding ingredients.
  • Nearly half of “clean eaters” define the term as eating foods that are not highly processed; fresh produce, organic and simple ingredients lists also rank high.
  • Seeking out health benefits is the top motivator for choosing foods and beverages with clean ingredients.

Food ingredients have been used for centuries to improve flavor, appearance, nutrition, freshness or texture in foods and beverages. But the names of those ingredients or how they are described can make a big difference in whether a product is purchased or passed by. This survey looks at the role ingredients play in the food attitudes and purchasing habits of American consumers, revealing that this topic is popular and often polarizing. Below are some key findings:

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of adults say the ingredients in a food or beverage have at least a moderate influence on what they buy. When shopping, most Americans cite that the product itself is where they look for information about the ingredients, with six in ten (62%) consulting the ingredients list and half (52%) looking at front-of-package information. Other sources of information trail far behind, including the websites or social media accounts of brands/companies (20%), family or friends (16%) and QR codes on packages (8%). However, younger adults (under age 45), those with college degrees and people in the highest income bracket (>$80K/year) are more likely to consult brand/company websites or social media compared to their counterparts.

Americans are paying more attention to ingredient lists, choosing clean ingredients and avoiding chemical sounding ingredients. The survey also found diverging opinions about preservatives: Over four in ten (42%) agree that adding preservatives to foods is a way to help reduce food waste (21% disagree) and 39% agree that adding an ingredient to a food would be positive if it extended shelf life (23% disagree). Men were more likely than women to strongly agree with these statements.

The words “natural” and “artificial” evoke strong reactions around food choices. About half of Americans say they seek out natural flavors at least some of the time, 41% seek out natural sweeteners, 40% seek out natural preservatives and 35% seek out colors from natural sources. In contrast, artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners and preservatives were sought out by only about one in 10 consumers, with approximately half saying they avoid each of them at least some of the time.

Nearly 2 in 3 survey takers (64%) say they try to choose foods made with clean ingredients. When these respondents were asked how they define clean ingredients, “not artificial or synthetic” was the top choice of 22%, while 16% chose “organic,” 15% chose “fresh,” 14% cited “something they know is nutritious” and another 14% selected “natural.” At the bottom of the list, 6% cited the following options as their top choice: something with a familiar or recognizable name, something that doesn’t have a chemical-sounding name and something with a name they can pronounce.

Nearly half consider themselves to be clean eaters. One in five (21%) rank “eating foods that aren’t highly processed” as their top definition of the term (nearly half, 49%, rank this in their top three). Another 14% of self-described clean eaters define it as eating foods found in the fresh produce section, 13% as eating organic foods, 11% as eating foods with simple ingredients lists and 9% define it as eating foods with ingredients they just consider to be “clean.”

Of those who choose foods and beverages with clean ingredients, a quarter reported that health benefits were their top motivation. An additional one in five (21%) cite that they are looking to avoid the possible harmful effects of chemical-sounding ingredients, 18% most want to avoid the possible harmful effects of unfamiliar ingredients, 18% want to be familiar with what goes into the foods and beverages they choose and 17% who think foods and beverages with clean ingredients are more nutritious.

Health-related factors also impacted the list of reasons consumers avoid ingredients with chemical-sounding names. More than a quarter (26%) selected general health concerns for themselves as the top reason, 20% chose general health concerns for their family, 13% cited cancer, 8% cited that the ingredients were unfamiliar to them, 7% chose digestive issues and 7% cited environmental concerns. Concerns around ingredient sensitivities (6%), food allergies (5%) and foodborne illness (5%) ranked just slightly lower.

Methodology

Survey results were derived from online interviews of 1,054 adults conducted from May 6th to May 10th, 2021. They were weighted to ensure proportional representation of the population, with a margin of error of ±3.1 points at the 95% confidence level.