What Matters In Choosing Foods

As consumers wheel their shopping carts down the supermarket aisles, the wheels are turning in their heads as they consider what matters most to them in choosing foods. A Better Homes and Gardens/BrandSpark International poll, released late last month, gives a detailed look at their thinking.

One part of the study looked at the factors that matter most to respondents when deciding whether to buy a new food. Atop the rankings were “offers great taste” (44 percent calling it “extremely important and 45 percent “very important”), “is well priced” (45 percent “extremely,” 43 percent “very”) and “is fresh” (40 percent “extremely,” 45 percent “very”). Somewhat fewer assigned as much importance to “looks appetizing” (32 percent “extremely,” 50 percent “very”), “smells good” (27 percent “extremely,” 50 percent “very”) or “is healthy” 27 percent “extremely,” 47 percent “very”).

While health stands relatively high on the hierarchy of concerns, the polling (fielded October-December) found less interest in some specific aspects of that. Just over half the respondents said it’s important (17 percent “extremely,” 36 percent “very”) that a new food be “low in sodium/salt.” Fewer attached such importance to “free of preservatives” (16 percent “extremely,” 33 percent “very”) or “cholesterol free” (15 percent “extremely,” 31 percent “very”). Likewise, just over one in five said it’s important to them (6 percent “extremely,” 15 percent “very”) that a new food product be “organic.”

The low ranking for new “organic” foods reflects wariness toward the whole category. Fifty-two percent of respondents don’t buy organic. Of this cohort, 39 percent “don’t trust that all products labeled as organic are actually organic”; 35 percent “do not believe that organic food products are better for my health.” Consumers may also feel they’re satisfying their wish to eat healthier by avoiding food that’s blatantly unhealthy. Along those lines, 69 percent are “trying to eat healthier snacks”; 60 percent are “concerned about the amount of fat in my diet.”

With a majority (57 percent) saying they are “trying to reduce the amount of processed foods that I consume,” fruit is a natural alternative. When respondents were asked to cite the fruits that “are particularly important to you from a nutritional standpoint,” bananas got the most votes (71 percent). Apples (66 percent), oranges (61 percent), strawberries (59 percent) and blue-berries (54 percent) also scored well.

When purchasing packaged foods, consumers claim to be interested in precisely what the product contains. Thus, 67 percent said they are “paying more attention to food labels.” Asked to cite specific elements that are important to them, respondents gave the most mentions to calcium (65 percent), whole grain (64 percent), fiber (63 percent), Vitamin D (59 percent), Vitamin C (59 percent), protein (57 percent) and anti-oxidants (56 percent).

Another part of the report makes it clear that consumers are way beyond regarding private-label products as a cheap-but-tacky last resort. Fifty-nine percent agreed that “private-label/store-brand products are just as good as brand-name products”; 66 percent said such products “are usually extremely good value for the money.”

That helps explain why 56 percent said they’ve bought more of these items in the past 12 months. But this isn’t a behavior that will go away once the recession has ended. In one telling indication of how entrenched the category is, 63 percent of the respondents agreed (including 19 percent “completely”) that they “expect to purchase private-label/store-brand products even after the economy rebounds.”