Healthy Eating Is a Hard Sell

Few virtuous intentions are more broadly held than the wish to adopt a healthier diet. Alas, a glance at the nation’s waistlines tells us that many consumers fail to carry through on this worthy aim. Aside from the intrinsic frailty of human nature, why is this so? A new report by Catalina Marketing identifies factors that draw grocery shoppers to healthy foods — and factors that deter many from buying more of those goods.

It’s not as though consumers can’t find health-friendly goods when they go to the supermarket. In a survey conducted for the report (with support from the Food Marketing Institute), 72 percent of respondents agreed that the store they go to “stocks a wide variety of healthful foods and beverages.” They’re less impressed, though, with the store’s utility as a source of information and guidance on healthy eating — particularly among shoppers who have kids in the household. While 50 percent of all respondents said their supermarket “helps me make healthy food choices,” just 35 percent of parents said the store “helps me make healthy food choices for children.”

Among all respondents, well under half (38 percent) said their store “provides information on foods and beverages that help manage specific health concerns.” And that tendency isn’t confined to consumers who may not be disposed to notice such information even if it’s there. Even among those who claim to eat healthy meals “most days,” just 44 percent said their supermarket provides information of that sort.

One thing consumers do know about healthy foods — or, at least, think they know — is that such products are pricy. Seventy-seven percent of respondents to Catalina’s polling agreed with the statement, “Healthy foods and beverages generally cost more.” If anything, people have an exaggerated notion of the extent to which such a price differential exists. Sharon Glass, who led the study as Catalina’s vp, health and wellness, speculates that respondents “may have had in mind the relative price premium of fresh fruits and vegetables or lower-fat packages of fresh meat,” though she adds that the survey didn’t inquire into attitudes about specific food categories.

In any case, she notes, there are plenty of healthy foods that don’t cost more than the less-healthy alternative. “In many categories, the lower-calorie or lower-fat options marketed by a given product are [priced] the same,” she says. “Examples include soft drinks, shelf-stable and refrigerated juices, hot dogs, milk and dairy products in general, salad dressing, mayonnaise and yogurt.”

For many consumers, one deterrent to choosing healthy foods and beverages is the old assumption that if something is good for you, it probably isn’t very tasty. Overall, 59 percent of respondents said they believe “healthy foods and beverages generally taste good.” But the number fell to 31 percent among those who don’t claim to eat healthy meals most days. For that matter, it was a less-than-unanimous 76 percent even among those who did identify themselves as eating healthy most days.

Can marketers do more to combat this perception that “healthy” and “tasty” are attributes that don’t readily coexist? “Shelf labels that identify healthy products and sampling or tasting events in the store are of interest to most shoppers,” says Glass. “Sampling can be an effective way to overcome the barrier of negative taste perceptions.”

Coupons would also help consumers give healthy foods a fair try: More than four-fifths of respondents said coupons for such products would “encourage healthy shopping” on their part. Along with things like shelf labels that identify healthy products and reward programs for purchasing such goods, coupons could help get through to consumers who resist changing their diet because they believe (often for no good reason) that it’s already healthy enough. Sixty-two percent of the survey’s respondents said they “eat healthy.”

Still, they’re not unalterably wedded to their current diets, as 66 percent said they’re seeking ways to “improve their health and wellness through the foods and beverages they consume.” And they’re on the lookout for assistance from coupons, product sampling, recipes, rewards programs and the like. Says Glass: “This indicates they want to be informed and have opportunities to easily and affordably try more healthful options — without being told directly that what they are currently consuming is a less than optimal choice.”