Fresh, delicious food is the dominant consumer route to health and wellness today. Fresh, less-processed as the mark of quality food has moved from a niche idea to a mainstream value. Yet it is couched in our desire for highly personal, customized choices, as well as discovery and enjoyment.

We live in an era when consumer-driven demand for higher-quality food and beverages has fundamentally altered traditional offerings in food industry segments ranging from packaged foods in supermarkets to menu items in foodservice and restaurants.

In the minds of consumers, health and sustainability are integrated and separate.

Embodied by the success of brands like Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Panera Bread and Chipotle, the rise in importance of fresh and less-processed foods and beverages—not only as a halo of high quality, but as symbols of health and sustainability in the minds of consumers—now extends from the aisles of natural, specialty and grocery stores to the dining venues of diverse restaurant formats and foodservice settings.

Whether shopping, cooking or dining out, consumers’ food culture and eating norms are changing dramatically. When shopping, more people now look for minimally processed foods and beverages that contain only ingredients they recognize, are locally grown or produced, and have the shortest ingredients list.

Consumer value personalization in food choices, including snacks, which can play an important role. Consumers like to experiment with various food approaches and/or diets.

The Hartman Group’s 2013 “A Culture of Wellness” report found that about one-third of consumers questioned said they had adopted a special diet in the past year. More than half (58 percent) of consumers said they use food to manage a health condition and 22 percent of dinner occasions involved customized ingredients or substituted dishes.

Beneath the health and sustainability halo, “fresh” continues to be a most-valued quality distinction marker, whereas descriptors such as “locally grown” and “seasonal” are now almost as salient as calorie and fat information.

Consumers now source health-and-wellness products and brands wherever they shop, as more products and brands once found only in natural and specialty channels are now available everywhere. This is even truer today, since fresh, less-processed foods are a dominant wellness tool.

The trend toward fresh continues to be evident as consumers purchase more fresh categories than packaged or prepared categories, and this becomes more evident from the periphery to the core. Consumers evaluate stores on their ability to provide a full range of fresh offerings in produce, meat, deli, cheese and bakery categories.

The “fresh focus” influences consumers’ perceptions of brands. Brands that cue “fresh” with organic ingredients, ingredients that are easy to pronounce, few ingredients, minimal packaging and so on are deemed wellness brands.

Sustainability is a broad, abstract term, and consumers do not yet clearly understand how it relates to them or the foods they eat. We do know, however, that consumers are looking for transparency from food companies and for products and food options that are healthier and higher-quality.

 Once consumers understand the meaning and relevance of sustainability in food production, they associate sustainable foods with nutrition and higher quality.