- The majority of Americans buy processed foods and beverages sometimes or often.
- Half of Americans have not changed the amount of processed foods they’ve purchased over the past three months.
- Many say that they are more likely to buy a processed food or beverage if it is high in protein, enriched or fortified with vitamins and minerals and has natural flavors/colors.
- Consumers are fairly split on their level of concern about processing for different types of foods/beverages.
- When looking at purchase drivers, taste, price and healthfulness greatly outrank whether a food or beverage is processed.
Processed foods and beverages are found in nearly every section of the grocery store and are often part of our daily meals, snacks and desserts. But how does processing affect what Americans are buying and eating? In this survey, we aim to find out what Americans’ perceptions and purchasing behaviors are around processed foods and beverages.
Over three-quarters (77%) buy processed foods and beverages sometimes or often. When asked about how often consumers purchase processed food and beverages, the majority say that they do so at least sometimes, and nearly one-third (32%) say they do so very often. Age seems to play a role, too, with those under age 45 being over two times more likely than older adults to purchase processed foods and beverages very often (41%, vs. 16% over age 65).
Consumers are split on whether or not they consider if a food or beverage is processed. About half (48%) say that they consider whether a product is processed or not before purchasing it, but 19% of those consumers say they are more likely to purchase the processed product compared to 29% who say they are less likely to do so. Nearly three in 10 (28%) say their consideration depends on the food, while 23% say they do not consider whether it is processed. Interestingly, men, those earning over $80K and those under 45 are more likely to purchase a processed product, compared to their counterparts.
Additionally, those who at least sometimes consider whether foods or beverages are processed turn to ingredient lists, type of food, front of package labels and the Nutrition Facts label to inform their purchasing.
Just over half (51%) say that the amount of processed foods and beverages they’ve purchased hasn’t changed over the past three months. While about half have stayed consistent in their purchases, nearly one in 5 (19%) say that they have purchased more processed foods than they normally do and 22% say they have purchased less. Men, those earning $80K+, those under age 45 and those with college degrees were more likely to have purchased more processed foods than they usually do, compared to their counterparts. Additionally, those earning less than $40K and those ages 45-64 and 65+ were more likely to say the amount of processed foods purchased hasn’t changed.
When asked about health and environmental attributes that make consumers more or less likely to purchase a processed food or beverage, over half (55%) said they are more likely to purchase a processed food or beverage if it is high in protein. Environmentally friendly products fall further down the list, with over two in 5 (42%) saying they are more likely to purchase a processed food or beverage with this attribute. Of those who say that “environmentally friendly” holds sway, about half do so out of concern for the environment and a commitment to buying environmentally friendly products. Demographics matter here, too. Compared to their counterparts, those under 45, men and those earning $80K+ are more likely to buy a processed food or beverage if it is environmentally friendly, organic and plant-based.
Dairy, grains and 100% fruit juices are the most frequently purchased foods/beverages. Dairy rose to the top as the product that consumers always purchase when grocery shopping, with two in 5 (42%) saying so, followed by grains (30%) and 100% fruit and vegetable juices (27%). Age and income level can also play a role in driving purchase decisions. For example, those under age 45 and earning over $80K were more likely to say that they always buy nutrition/granola/protein/snack bars, plant-based dairy alternatives, plant-based meat alternatives and seltzer/carbonated water, compared to those over age 45 and earning under $40K, respectively.
There are similar levels of processing-related concerns across a variety of food and beverage categories. When asked about how concerned consumers are about the amount of processing spanning different food and beverages, the percentage of those who said they were extremely, somewhat, slightly or not at all concerned was generally consistent across different types of food. Processed meat or poultry (24%), sugar-sweetened beverages (24%) and frozen meals (24%) have slightly higher levels of processing-related concerns; similar percentages said they were not all concerned about the processing in these foods.
Taste, price and healthfulness are the top-ranked purchase drivers when grocery shopping, even when “processed or not” is in the mix. When asked to rank purchase drivers for food and beverages, taste, price and healthfulness greatly outrank factors such a brand, familiarity, convenience and whether or not it is processed. When comparing how these purchase drivers are ranked when shopping for beverages versus for food, we see that brand and whether it is processed is slightly higher in the ranking order for beverages.
Survey results were derived from online interviews of 1,002 adults conducted from July 7 to July 15, 2021, by Lincoln Park Strategies. They were weighted to ensure proportional representation of the population, with a margin of error of ±3.1 points at the 95% confidence level.