As a restaurateur or foodservice professional, staying ahead of consumers’ preferences can seem like a neverending task. Keeping on top of consumers’ diet preferences and perceptions of health, though, is a far bigger challenge — and it’s becoming increasingly important as consumers have more specific interpretations of what healthy means for them.
Consumers’ definition of a healthful lifestyle has evolved far past just losing or managing weight, to be sure. While plenty of people set weight goals, more consumers than ever eat with an eye toward managing risk for chronic illness, achieving better sleep, stress or mental health, or targeting specific nutrients and functional benefits, according to Datassential.
Because consumers define health in highly personal and specific ways, operators and manufacturers no longer can simply call out foods as “low fat” or “low calorie” and expect those labels to grow sales. Health innovation is now about touting beneficial nutrients, functional attributes and production methods.
And perhaps surprisingly, the importance most consumers put on immunity did not change after the pandemic, but perhaps because the movement toward immunity-boosting and other functional foods was already underway.
So of all the possibilities and varied consumer focus, what do they want most? Consumers are most focused on bettering their heart and gut health, building up immunity and lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammation. And in large part, they’re looking for foods to do that.
But just as the definition of health differs widely among consumers, their approach does too — particularly between men and women.
In fact, men are more likely to identify as strict dieters and as “foodies,” according to Datassential, which correlates with an openness to new eating styles or diets, consumption of “next-level” health foods, and interest in cell-cultured proteins or fortified foods and drinks.
Women’s diets don’t tend to involve the same kind of intense monitoring, Datassential’s survey revealed. Women are most often omnivores or flexitarians, and are significantly less likely to pursue other specific diets or eating styles. Still, women were more likely to gravitate toward specific functional benefits in foods as compared with men. So touting the functional benefits of a food may be the key to attracting a wide swath of both male and female consumers.
But just as male and female consumers think of health differently, so do consumers in different age groups.
For instance, boomers, like women, were less likely to hold a strict diet or call themselves “foodies,” Datassential’s research showed, and they also are more likely to opt for better-for-you options when they dine out, rather than vegan substitutes, to which younger generations tend to gravitate.
And while Gen Z and millennial consumers have the same level of awareness and interest in functional foods as their older counterparts, younger consumers are more likely to go out of their way to find those items in foodservice or retail.
The specific function of these foods differs among generations, as well. Boomers tend to gravitate toward items that are specifically marketed to help prevent or manage cancer and diabetes, or those that generally alleviate conditions associated with aging.
While a variety of different attributes are important to consumers, they also put a premium on high-quality sourcing or production methods. Those marketed as such tend to fetch higher prices.
In the end, a functional food must be a tasty food. Consumers aren’t willing to sacrifice taste for health. For example, nearly one-fourth of the consumers who are eating more plant-based foods do so because they genuinely enjoy their taste, Datassential said.
Although it may seem like many consumers have overconsumed information about the function of foods and ingredients, operators and manufacturers should remember that functional foods are still in the early stages of adoption and that as the number of functional foods grows and evolves, it will be vital to continue to educate consumers on health benefits in new applications so they can incorporate them into a healthy diet — whatever that happens to mean for them.
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Samantha Des Jardins is a writer for Datassential, a food industry market research and insights firm.
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