Better-for-you foods continue to proliferate as food companies vie for the attention of increasingly health-conscious consumers. It’s become such an expectation that in some categories, you face a competitive disadvantage if your product line isn’t "better for you" in one way or another. But what are the health benefits consumers are looking for today? Are your products delivering the right ones? And how are current food and diet trends influencing consumer perceptions of what’s healthy?
What Does Healthy Mean to Consumers?
According to a recent report by L.E.K. Consulting, 93% of consumers feel compelled to eat healthy some of the time, while 63% of consumers try to eat healthy most of the time.1 In addition, nearly half are reading the nutrition label most of the time before purchasing a product.
Since healthy can mean different things to different people, L.E.K. suggests using categories such as less of, enhanced, and alternative dietary lifestyles. “Less of” products could have less salt, sugar, fat, carbs, or calories; while “enhanced” products might be enhanced with protein, fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, or omega-3 fatty acids. Alternative dietary lifestyles include eating patterns such as plant-based, gluten-free, paleo, and keto.
The Benefits Consumers are Really Seeking
Consumers may indeed check the nutrition label for more fiber or less sugar, or an ingredient statement for the absence of gluten or the presence of plant protein, but to understand their motivations, we have to dig deeper. Behind these food choices is often the desire for very specific health benefits. The top health benefits consumers are seeking from foods are:
1. Heart Health
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in our country, making heart-healthy food choices top of mind for many consumers. Products low in saturated fat, low in sodium, high in fiber, or with added omega-3 fatty acids can meet this demand due to their various effects on the cardiovascular system. Plant-based and whole grain products also address this need.
2. Weight Loss and Management
With most Americans overweight, formulating for weight management is more important than ever. Products can deliver satiety through protein, fiber, and the judicious use of fat. Sugar can be reduced without sacrificing flavor by using stevia or sugar alcohols. Best-selling ice cream Halo Top relies on stevia, erythritol, milk protein concentrate, and prebiotic fiber for a low-calorie nutrition label. Low carb, keto, and intermittent fasting can also be part of a weight loss approach.
Many consumers choose foods and beverages for energy, at least some of the time. Ingredients associated with energy include B vitamins, caffeine, and increasingly, MCTs. Sustained energy can be supported by products higher in fiber or protein, as well as lower in sugar (to help prevent a sugar crash).
4. Brain Function
Consumers have become increasingly interested in using food to help boost or maintain their memory, focus, or cognition. Omega-3 fatty acids (especially DHA) is associated with healthy brain function, while L-theanine from green tea has been studied for its effects on focus and memory. Vitamin E and magnesium also play important roles in the brain.
5. Digestive Health
Consumers' interest in digestive health has helped drive the yogurt category’s incredible growth and made kombucha a household word. Probiotics and fiber (in particular prebiotic fiber) are the ingredients these consumers are looking for. Kellogg’s Hi! Happy Inside breakfast cereal, which contains both, is positioned as a “cereal for digestive wellness.” Gluten-free, dairy-free, and other allergen-free products may also appeal to these consumers in their efforts to manage possible food allergies or sensitivities.
Other Health Benefits from Foods
Other sought-after health benefits from foods, according to the latest report from the International Food Information Council, are muscular strength, immune support, and blood sugar management.2 The report also found that confusion among consumers about conflicting food and nutrition information is prevalent. This indicates an opportunity for manufacturers to educate consumers and teach them how to choose the right foods to reach their health goals.
Putting the Pieces Together
Manufacturers that take the holistic approach to formulating better-for-you foods are more likely to connect with consumers and correctly address their needs. This also creates a clear strategy for formulation. For example, rather than simply adding probiotics to a product because probiotics are trending, consider the implied need for digestive health. A gluten-free product with probiotics and prebiotics that makes a digestive wellness claim may be the better choice.
To learn more about the most important nutrients on the nutrition label, download our guide to Nutrients of Concern: What Food Manufacturers Need to Know.
1. Steingoltz, M., Picciola, M., & Wilson, R. (2018). Consumer Health Claims 3.0: The Next Generation of Mindful Food Consumption. Retrieved from https://www.lek.com/insights/ei/next-generation-mindful-food-consumption
2. International Food Information Council Foundation. (2018). 2018 Food & Health Survey. Retrieved from https://foodinsight.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/2018-FHS-Report-FINAL.pdf