Trends in Consumer Choices Offer Hope

May 8, 2012 in Foodland, Nutrition, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

Elizabeth Sloan PhD, is president of Sloan Trends, Inc., a San Diego based consulting firm providing trends, insights and predictions for modern foods, functional foods, nutritional supplements and nutraceuticals for the food service and food processor industry. The term ‘modern foods’ well fits Sloan’s audience, but the positive spin food processors put on it (“Better living through science and technology”), is not what you get when you search on the term.  More often you learn about how “modern foods” are linked to the diabetes epidemic, and you find items exposing problems with the industrialized food system. Back to Food Navigator’s piece, the headline is: Superfruits are out, traditional fruits are in, reporting on Elizabeth Sloan’s presentation regarding consumers’ preferences in fruit flavors. She said, “Superfruits are not doing too well.” Acai has gone from being in the top five most-used flavors in 2009 to 19th in 2011. Pomegranate was number one in 2008-9, but has slipped to 18th last year. Sloan’s research shows that consumers who were looking for antioxidant content in their fruit juice are now discovering herbs, spices, and ordinary fruits, which may have much higher antioxidant values that the superfruits. Does this indicate that the public has gotten the message about the hyped so called superfruits? I can only hope. Also, maybe before spending a fortune on some company’s over-hyped super herbs/spices, the consumer will go directly to their spice rack this time. Again, I can only hope.

Food processors are struggling to learn why functional foods are not taking off in confectionary foods sector the way the food processing industry expected. A phrase in Leatherhead Food Research’s advertisement for their report “Innovations is the Global Confectionery Market,” seemed to jump off the page at me.  It is, “a bid to improve the perceived health and nutritional qualities of their confectionery products.” Do we really care what the ‘health and nutritional qualities of products are, or do we only care what the perception is? The answer for advertisers is different from the answers of increasingly health-conscious consumers.

Certainly I’ve done no research to probe the thinking of consumers when confronted with confectionary fudes (think candy bars, snack bars, chewing gum, or what is on the shelves at the local convenience store); but I submit that maybe people are not so gullible as to believe that candy with added omega 3s is really some kind of health food. Maybe putting any stock into the processor’s claim to have put probiotics into the ice cream is really not part of consumer thinking in choosing ice cream as a snack. Or maybe even, people are beginning to understand that adding vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, omega 3s, and probiotics to junk fudes and diminished quality foods, is like crafting that proverbial sow’s ear so that it might be perceived as a silk purse. Perhaps nutritionism is becoming harder to sell. I can only hope.

The third trend that I’ve recently read about in the world of food processors is reported in Food Navigator, Fresh and convenient: Part-preparation could be the answer. The article begins with this sentence that makes me feel like doing a jig: “Consumer demand for less processing, fresher ingredients and more participation in food preparation is a huge challenge for the processed food industry, but there are ways that food manufactures can respond to this demand, according to experts at the recent Research Chefs Association conference. (The same conference where Elizabeth Sloan gave her presentation mentioned above.) I hope the food processors can be true to this expressed desire to achieve this goal, and not revert to more deceptive management of appearances. I worry because so many of the processed foods become profitable by removing critical healthy nutrients, in order to make the products shelf stable for long periods of time, and reduce other costly ingredients. But if the food processors could do some chopping, blanching to make vegetables hold up in storage, for example, then our time-stressed population could benefit from this type of partially prepared food. If the food processors expanded and improved the quality and convenience of the frozen vegetable selections, I know that would help me when I’m in a hurry.

The article says that consumers actually want to prepare – rather than reheat –convenience foods. I like the idea to move toward more consumer control. If we  consumers can add our own salt, spice and sweeteners, etc. this would be a positive step forward. Consumers could certainly cut back on some ingredients, like salt, if the food processor did not already add it in.  As shown in other blog posts, The Sodium Wars are Heating Up and, Mmm Mmm Good – the Salt of the Earth we consumers are not able to trust the food processors to make the changes.  It can be argued that we are partly to blame, because our tastes have become accustomed to too much salt. The reply to this is that the processors conditioned our tastes by tempting us with inexpensive and convenient soup, inexpensive because it had precious little meat and only a garnish of vegetables.  With such a poverty of nutritious foods, the cost is low, the profit high for them, and the salt is the main factor that will provide some noticeable taste. So yes, give us some control over how much salt and other ingredients to add.

My imagination is certainly well developed. I imagine expanding stir-fry style meals and adding other vegetable-rich meals. But as I read further into the article, I came upon their example – Velveeta Cheesy Skillets Dinner Kits. Oh dear! Can we not think of a way to help the consumer without pushing “ooey gooey velveeta chessy skillets? Yikes!  Let’s move toward whole grains and vegetables. Please?

Further on in the report on the Chefs conference, you will find a quote by the departing Research Chefs Association (RCA) president Janet Carver, who said that dealing with food-savvy consumers looking for fresher, more natural foods “is something we are struggling with as an industry.” Music to my ears!!! I don’t really want the industry to struggle fruitlessly, but I know that I waited for decades for them to develop a conscience – nothing happened, until the consumers have become educated. Demand for what we want, and neglect of the profitable but nutritionally impoverished fare they have offered us for so long is driving these changes. Their struggles will perhaps become lessened once they face up to providing real nutritional value and not the pretense of scientific-sounding additives in the place of whole foods they have removed.

I am becoming more full of hope for the food intake of Americans. Yes, I know this is just the beginning glimmer of hope – but perhaps this glimmer can become a beacon guiding real change in the foodstuffs available to us.