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WASHINGTON - American shoppers are increasingly aware of the role food and nutrition play in managing and maintaining health, and they're taking a variety of actions to meet their self-care objectives, according to a new study by the Food Marketing Institute and Prevention magazine, "Shopping for Health 2003: Whole Health for the Whole Family."
While 87 percent of consumers believe that healthy eating is a better way to manage illness than medication, the 12th annual report finds that consumers' shopping habits are largely driven by convenience, cost, and nutritional information, and that children have a significant influence on purchasing behavior.
"As shoppers consider herbal remedies, organic foods, make choices for their children's lunches, and decide where to learn about weight loss and healthy eating, food retailers and wholesalers are positioned to play a vital role in improving nutritional lifestyles of consumers," said Janice Jones, FMI director of research.
Many consumers believe that healthy meals must be fixed at home but that they do not have the time to prepare them, so they turn to prepackaged, takeout, and fast-food meals. While 50 percent of consumers complain that fast food is "not at all" healthful, 70 percent still buy prepared foods. Working women (33 percent) and younger shoppers more frequently cited time constraints as a reason for not eating more nutritious meals.
Healthful prepared foods are especially important to working women, younger shoppers, minorities, and those with poor diets, according to the study. Working women struggle to find time to cook and value healthy, ready-to-eat options. Gen X/Y shoppers place more importance on healthy prepared food options, possibly because they're less experienced with food preparation. Consumers who say their diets could be "a lot" healthier also seek healthy packaged/prepared foods.
Shoppers say that healthy foods are not only time-consuming to prepare, but also more costly than less healthy foods. Thirty percent of nutritionally struggling consumers cite the cost of healthy foods as a major reason they don't eat better. Shoppers with children, particularly single parents (41 percent), are more likely to say the expense of healthy foods is a major barrier to a more nutritious family diet.
The recent flurry of news coverage on obesity is not being ignored by today's shoppers. As of 2000, 65 percent of American adults are overweight and 31 percent are obese. This rampant weight gain is spreading to children as 15 percent of children ages 6 to 19 are overweight. However, while more than 80 percent of shoppers are already making "a lot of" or "some" effort to eat healthfully, they remain confused about what's healthy. Consumers say they need constant reminders and education about what's really best for them. According to the survey, 45 percent of shoppers strongly agree that "in the next five years, it's very likely that the experts will have a completely different idea about which foods are healthy and which are not."
Single parents are especially concerned with the changing nutritional rules, since they may not have time to keep up with new information. Nearly two-thirds of single parent shoppers (64 percent) strongly agree that the experts are likely to change their definitions of "healthy foods."
Nearly 85 percent of shoppers say one-stop shopping is "very" or "somewhat" important to them, particularly to working women, parents (especially single parents), minorities, and younger shoppers. Six out of 10 shoppers (62 percent) rate their current store as "excellent" or "good" in providing all food and health needs in one place. When asked which type of store does the best job in providing all the products needed to maintain health, shoppers named a typical supermarket (35 percent) first, followed by discount stores (22 percent), drug stores (15 percent), health and natural food stores (13 percent), and health and nutrition stores like GNC (8 percent).
Most parents are concerned about buying foods that are healthy, and 54 percent strongly disagree that "the nutritional quality of our family meals is less important to me than just getting my kids to eat without complaining." Parents who are managing their own diets and those with healthy weights are more likely than other shoppers to make the effort to keep their children's diets nutritious. Overweight parents are more likely to compromise the nutritional quality of a meal in order to have a complaint-free dinner.
The study also finds that parents are concerned with healthy lunches for schoolchildren. Forty-five percent of parents say their children eat lunch in the school cafeteria every day, while only 12 percent prepare a brown-bag lunch five days a week. Although cafeteria lunches provide more convenience for busy parents who don't have time to prepare a bagged lunch, 58 percent of the parents surveyed view home-prepared lunches as a more nutritious option. Only 26 percent of parents who rely on the school cafeteria to feed their children are very satisfied with the quality of the food.
The popularity of organic food products continues to increase as shoppers seek a healthier diet. However, while 60 percent of shoppers feel that organic foods are healthier than nonorganic foods, only 39 percent say they prefer to buy organic versions of the foods they normally eat. Growth in the organic food market is likely to come from shoppers already using these products: 62 percent say they'll buy additional organic products. Despite interest in organic foods, only 31 percent of shoppers noticed the new "USDA Organic" label on food products.
The most popular organic foods are fruits and vegetables, with 37 percent of shoppers purchasing these products regularly. According to 23 percent of consumers, long-term health benefits are the primary reason for buying organic foods.