The Role of Ingredients in Healthy Food Choices

April 9, 2007

6 Min Read
The Role of Ingredients in Healthy Food Choices

Research from The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) shows consumers clearly understand the connection between overall consumption of foods and beverages and maintaining a healthy lifestyle—a trend that has not wavered over the past six years. More specifically, almost three-quarters understand the importance of consuming healthy and nutritious foods in order to maintain a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

One of the ways consumers are making sure the foods they consume are healthy is by more closely monitoring both positive and negative ingredients in their foods and by being more conscientious of the impact these ingredients may have on their present and future health—as well as the health of the environment.

Checking the Label for Avoidance

Increased conscientiousness regarding health and nutrition is prompting many consumers to pay more attention to the outside of the package to make sure they are getting what they want on the inside. In fact, almost half (45 percent) of consumers indicate they select foods based on the ingredient list on the package.

What exactly are consumers looking for? Many have remained consistent in what ingredients they monitor most. Over the past three years, the top items consumers look for on a package label include total fat, calories, sugar and sodium. While monitoring of these four ingredients has remained rather stable, monitoring of others are showing change.

For instance, significantly more consumers are checking for transfats on food/beverage labels over the past three years, up from 25 percent in 2004 to 45 percent in 2006, a compound annual growth rate of 33 percent. This increase is being driven by the latest research findings connecting trans-fats with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, which spurred the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) ruling that all manufacturers must list the percentage of transfats on the package label. These events have, along with the recent bans of trans-fats in specific areas of the country, generated significant media coverage.

The Desire for Healthy Ingredients

Consumers are also showing increased monitoring behavior for positive ingredients, such as whole grain content, which has shown an 11 percent increase from 2005 to 2006, with almost one-quarter of consumers checking the label for whole grain content. More specifically, almost a third of consumers check the package label for fiber (30 percent), and about a quarter look for vitamin content (23 percent). Additionally, two-thirds of consumers agree it is important for their stores to carry foods that are naturally high in vitamins and minerals (65 percent), while 54 percent are seeking foods fortified with vitamins and minerals (see Figure 1).

The usage of fortified foods and functional foods is also showing steady increases. Among all consumers, fortified food usage grew 10 percent from 1999 to 2006, with 64 percent of consumers currently using, while the usage of functional foods grew 42 percent, up from 47 percent in 1999 to 66 percent in 2006. In even stronger news for the fortified and functional food industry, over half of consumers feel they can get their daily vitamin requirements from fortified foods (58 percent), and a third agree functional foods can actually be used in place of some medicines (31 percent). While the jury is still out on the use of true functional foods and the overall market viability, consumer attitudes are strong.

Food Purity and Environmental Concerns

While the food industry is answering the call for healthier food by adding ingredients to fortify food and make food more functional (for the use of specific health issues), they are also faced with consumers who want less negative connotations—reflected in usage and expansion of the organic category. In fact, the number of consumers checking for organic ingredients on the package label has more than doubled since 2004. The main driver of organic food usage across produce, packaged foods and organic beverages is “avoidance”— of pesticides, preservatives, hormones and toxins, among others. In turn, the perceived consumer benefits of fewer negative additives, as is the case with organic, are higher quality, better taste, more nutrition, healthier, and safer for the environment (see Figure 2).

Consumers have also initiated organic food usage, with particular regard for organic produce, to support local farmers and protect the environment. It is estimated the average meal in America travels 150 miles from farm to table, consuming fossil fuels, diminishing the freshness of the products, and increasing the opportunity for contamination through increased exposure. That is why organic and “locally grown” are becoming synonymous and together provide a powerful impact for the consumer trying to make better choices. This impact is reflective of the “Deeper Values Experience” trend identified by NMI as one of the Top Ten 2007 Trends, where local and sustainable goods across many food and non-food categories are sought for not only their premium quality, but also their ethical appeal.

The Deeper Values Experience

Four out of five consumers (80 percent) indicate it is important for companies not just to be profitable, but to be mindful of their impact on the environment and society. In fact, 60 percent of consumers indicate knowing a company is mindful of their impact will make them more likely to buy their products or services, and make them more loyal to the company. Therefore, while consumers want healthy foods, they are becoming increasingly cognizant of the impact production and processing of foods have on the environment, thus driving the growth of the “cradle-to-cradle” concept.

It’s not surprising, then, that the influence of the “USDA Certified Organic” seal on foods has increased 22 percent since 2004, and impacts 41 percent of consumers’ purchase decision. In addition, the willingness to pay a 20 percent premium for organic food and beverages has increased 53 percent since 2002. Therefore, labeling and messaging that indicate food has been produced in an environmentally-friendly way can only add positively to the transparency of food companies, eliciting stronger consumer trust and loyalty.

The Future of Healthy Food

In the end, consumers are becoming more conscientious of the addition of positive ingredients and the removal of negative components in their food. Consumers are becoming more sophisticated and involved with their food choices and impacting the landscape of the food industry by demanding healthier foods, foods with more nutritive value, and less empty calories. In addition, in a time when consumers are faced with food safety concerns and other food-related apprehensions, creating a level of transparency will provide consumers with a greater perception of control, which will equip them with the ability to make more informed food choices.

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Consumers are making their voices heard with their purchasing dollars. Manufacturers and marketers who keep in alignment with consumer trends will be able to identify where the new boundaries are being set and rise to the occasion to be an integral part of the new healthy food frontier.

Steve French is managing partner with The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), a strategic consulting, market research and business development firm specializing in the health, wellness and sustainability marketplace. For more information on NMI’s services or proprietary research tools, contact French at [email protected] or visit

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