Appetite grows for healthy food

Consumers are taking note of the issues around healthy eating, and are making changes to their diets. They are also taking a greater interest in food labelling, suggesting this is an area for brands to focus on

Food, or more accurately healthy eating, is a topic that continues to dominate newspaper headlines and people’s thoughts, and in response the Government has declared war on obesity. The healthy eating message seems to be getting through: Nestlé has reported that its confectionery sales are down, and only last week McDonald’s announced it is to close 25 stores. Meanwhile, the debate around food labelling and how best to inform consumers about the nutritional value of what they eat rages on.

It’s not surprising the issue has become a major concern: children’s average clothing size has increased by two sizes in 20 years, and 20% of the UK population is now considered obese (that’s a 100% rise in 20 years). This is expected to rise to 40% if diets do not change.

The fifth Food Standards Agency study into UK Consumer Attitudes Towards Food Standards (2004), conducted by MORI and published last month, shows the number of people concerned about food safety issues has remained stable over the five years since the research began. About 70% of the 3,229 interviewees say they are "very" or "fairly" concerned about food safety. Concerns about raw meat, and in particular raw beef, have decreased year on year since 2000. Concern about eggs has also been declining, but this is likely to be reversed as the threat of bird flu begins to have an effect.

A larger proportion of women (24%) are "very concerned" about food safety issues than men (16%); those aged 16 to 25 and the over-65s show lower levels of concern than people aged 26 to 65. As with previous years, a higher proportion of people who eat more healthily (76%) are also concerned about food safety. Unsurprisingly, higher social grades say they are more concerned about food than those from lower social grades: 76% of ABs say they are concerned.

More than one-third of respondents claim their eating habits are more healthy than a year ago. Those aged 66 and over are more likely than younger age groups to say their eating habits have remained unchanged (66% compared with 53%).

Respondents in the DE social group are less likely than those in the AB and C1 groups to claim they are eating more healthily (31% compared with 43% and 38% respectively). Knowledge of the "at least five portions" of fresh fruit and vegetables a day strategy increased year on year between 2000 and 2003, and has remained stable since, at just under 60%. The proportion of respondents claiming to have eaten five portions of fruit and vegetables the previous day remained fairly stable between 2000 and 2003, but increased significantly, by 23 percentage points, in 2004, to 51%.

Among those consumers who look at food labelling, the numbers referring to the nutritional information has risen year on year from 55% in 2000, to 75% in 2004. The largest increases since 2000 have been in references to levels of salt, sugar, and fat content. Since 2002, there has been increasing concern about the accuracy of food labelling – 44% of respondents are now concerned compared with 34% in 2002.

As in previous years, residents in Northern Ireland are less likely to look for nutritional information (66%). However, those in Scotland were just as likely (72%) as those in England or Wales (both 75%) to look for information, when previously they had been less likely. Women were more likely than men to look for information on ingredients (69% compared with 61%) and nutritional information (81% compared with 68%), especially on the amount of salt, sugar, fat, calories and the presence of additives and genetically modified ingredients, but interest in ethical and general information was equal between the sexes.

The vast majority of UK consumers (90%) continue to use supermarkets for most of their food shopping, but this has declined significantly since 2003 (down by five percentage points from 95%). Shopping at traditional markets for food has increased significantly since 2003, with 25% of consumers now claiming to visit markets for some food shopping – up from 19% in 2003.

More than three-quarters of respondents claim to prepare meals using raw or fresh ingredients at least two or three times a week – a significant increase since 2003 of four percentage points. Young people aged 16 to 25 are the least likely to prepare meals using raw or fresh ingredients, with 12% never doing so and only 30% doing so once a day or more often.

Food marketers have clearly had an impact on consumers’ attitudes towards food and their eating habits. The message that we need to live healthier lifestyles is getting through, but more needs to be done. Along with nutritional value, food labelling is clearly climbing up consumers’ agenda, demonstrating that recent efforts from the industry have not gone unnoticed.

Mike Roderick, group director, Illuminas

Consumers are beginning to recognise that quality fresh ingredients, rather than fat, salt and sugar, can make tasty and nutritional meals. Consumers say they cannot decipher mixed messages about healthy eating, so to compensate they absorb only the simplest messages that enable them to apply basic rules to their diet, without having to make sacrifices. Many try to stick to the "five a day" rule, albeit with a little confusion as to what constitutes a portion. Food brands will only continue to be successful if they meet and, in some cases, exceed consumers’ needs, which are evolving, particularly, in areas of nutrition and ingredient labelling. Failure to keep pace with addressing consumer needs may see the Government take greater interest in the subject as it looks for ways to control the rising cost of maintaining the health of the nation.

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