What Are You Looking For from Food?

Think for a minute: What exactly are you hoping to get from the food you choose? Is food simply a foil to hunger, or are you more deliberate about the enjoyment, taste or nutrition of your meals?

It can be a tricky question to answer—and your answer might change depending on the time of day, how hungry you are, your health goals and of course, your budget. But no matter what your circumstance, on some basic level we all tend to want the same thing: a delicious, (at least somewhat) nutritious meal or snack for a reasonable price. And if it’s convenient, then that’s even better. At least, that’s what our years of consumer research have shown.

Taste and price are, and likely always will be, the top drivers of our food decisions. But for today, let’s put those two aside and focus on another major priority: health. When you think of how food relates to health, the first thing that may come to mind is body weight. It makes sense—food has calories, and the number of calories we eat impacts our body weight.

Currently, about 70 percent of U.S. adults are reportedly overweight or obese, and 40 percent of people in our 2018 survey said they are interested in weight loss or weight maintenance benefits from the foods they eat. This is second only to cardiovascular health when it comes to benefits that people are seeking from their food choices.

Our research also shows that, despite seeking health benefits from foods, many people tend to have difficulty making direct connections between specific foods and a health benefit. When it comes to foods and nutrients that might help with body weight and cardiovascular health, we see some similarities. For example, vegetables and protein lead the way for perceived benefits in weight loss, and vegetables, protein and oils/fats are the leading foods and nutrients sought for cardiovascular health.  

Common sense says that we should choose healthier options to improve our health, at least most of the time. But what are people looking for from food? According to our 2018 survey, vitamin D, fiber and whole grains are rated as some of the healthiest components in food. Though not seen as healthy as vitamin D, fiber or whole grains, our survey respondents also rated:

  • Protein from plant sources as healthy compared to animal-sourced protein
  • Unsaturated fats as healthy compared to saturated fats
  • Whole grains as healthy compared to enriched refined grains
  • Probiotics as healthy compared to than prebiotics

But the definition of “healthy” is personal and reflective of more than just the vitamin D or fiber content listed on a food’s label. Our 2018 survey tested this concept by presenting respondents with the same Nutrition Facts label, while also varying non-nutrition information. The exercise revealed that even when the Nutrition Facts were identical, more people believe:

  • A fresh product is healthier than a frozen product (41 percent versus 10 percent)
  • A shorter ingredients list is healthier than a longer list (33 percent versus 15 percent)
  • A non-GMO product is healthier than GMO product (40 percent versus 15 percent)

It’s clear that our food choices are complicated. Consumer research, like our annual Food & Health Survey, helps shed light on some of the complexities.

These are just some of the findings the 2018 survey. To dig deeper, you can download the full report here.

This blog includes contributions from Alyssa Ardolino, RD, and Allison Webster, PhD, RD.