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Americans, food shopping and health

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Americans aren’t known for making the healthiest food choices – we eat too much salt, sugar and fat and not enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It’s the reason we’re too fat and the reason so many of us suffer from diabetes, heart disease and other preventable conditions.

We know the “what” all too well. An annual survey from the Food Marketing Institute, Prevention magazine and Rodale gives us a glimpse into the “why,” as well as a look at how many of us are trying to do better. The Shopping for Health 2012 report looks at motivations and intentions behind our food choices.

First, the survey shows that most of us have good intentions. Nearly 80% of consumers said they try to make healthy food choices at least some of the time, although the statistic drops dramatically when the question becomes whether healthy food choices have become a habit – 31% said they put “a lot” of effort into healthy eating. The good news in that group: 71% said they’re successful more than half of the time, and 11% said they always succeed.

While data illustrating our intentions and how well we’re following through have remained pretty much the same in recent years, we’re making fewer excuses for not making healthier food choices. Of all excuses that people gave for not choosing healthy options, the only one that’s gone up since 2007 is the perception that it’s too expensive to eat food that’s better for us.

Prices and budgets have been of increasing concern since the recession began five years ago, a fact that’s reflected in other statistics in the report. This year, 60% of consumers said they’re choosing store brands over brand names, and 48% said they’re buying fewer prepared meals and doing more cooking at home, compared with 48% and 38%, respectively, in 2009.

“More and more shoppers are making the switch to foods with benefits. They are steering away from empty calories and asking, ‘What’s in my food, and how is it good for me?’ ” Cary Silvers, director of consumer insights at Prevention, said in a news release about the report.

Respondents of the 2012 survey got specific when defining major diet-related health concerns. Priorities vary a bit between age groups and genders, but overall, “maintaining/improving heart health” ranks highest on the top 10 list, while preventing cancer is sixth, behind providing more energy, avoiding empty calories, digestive health and improving immunity.

The report also has good news for restaurants. Respondents citing “not available at restaurants” as an obstacle to healthy eating decreased from 50% in 2007 to 40% this year. My guess on this one: Restaurants are doing a better job of offering healthy choices and getting the word out through marketing.

A few more findings

  • Men are less likely to count calories but more likely to pay attention to the nutritional content of food and beverages. They’re also more likely to pick a nutritionist over a trainer when trying to lose weight.
  • Consumers still rate food labeled “natural” on par with certified organic offerings in terms of health benefits.
  • 65% of consumers said they bought locally produced food in the past year.
  • Half of parents said nutrition is most important when buying food for their children, while 43% said they buy what their children like.
  • Convenience is key for the 39% who pick “easy, on the go” items and the 32% who pick food that takes the least amount of time to prepare.