March marks National Nutrition Month and offers an opportunity to explore the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and USDA’s newly released Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015–2020—as well as the shifts in consumer shopping and consumption patterns over the past year—to ensure the food industry is well-positioned for the year ahead.
It’s safe to say the food industry witnessed a series of changes in 2015—from the ban on trans fats to the ongoing activities of blogger Vani Hari, aka the Food Babe, and her “army,” who prompted restaurant giants such as Subway, Panera and Chipotle to reformulate their menus to appeal to more health-conscious consumers. It leaves bakers and snack producers trying to make sense of these changes in order to anticipate future challenges and remain nimble in navigating consumer preferences.
The new Dietary Guidelines validate the scientific and nutritional information that has been available for years—that consumers can, and should, enjoy grains as part of healthy, balanced diet. These recommendations have an impact on packaging and product communications, and allow the industry to drive home the fact that grain-based goods are helping consumers meet their daily nutrition needs. As bakers and snack producers know, grain-based foods deliver essential nutrients such as fiber, iron and B vitamins.
But aside from short-term packaging modifications, will these recommendations really impact the baking industry and change consumer behavior? Recent consumer trends illustrate shifting consumption patterns.
Consumers are looking for more information than ever before—seeking, reading and assessing ingredient labels. For example, the Whole Grains Council’s Whole Grain Stamp has clearly marked those products that use whole-grain ingredients, but that is not the only area of concern for those assessing their food choices.
According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC), whole grains, calories and sugars are the most-common food components that Americans consider when making purchasing decisions about packaged foods. While people actively seek out whole grains, they also notice calorie counts and avoid added sugars. This consumer trend is validated by the recent guidelines, which recommend that Americans limit sugar to no more than 10 percent of their daily calories.
Meanwhile, Americans are snacking more than ever. Two-thirds of adults say they often snack between meals, and 40 percent snack rather than eat a meal, according to Packaged Facts. Consumers are also searching for healthier snack options, and 30 percent of Americans claim they only snack on healthy foods. As such, sales of snacks perceived to be healthy continue to outpace their more-indulgent counterparts. A recent Mintel study, for instance, reports that 15 percent of those who buy chocolate are buying less of it. When they do buy chocolate, these consumers are opting for low-sugar dark chocolate and nut and/or fruit-enrobed chocolate alternatives.
IFIC also notes sweeteners (including artificial), preservatives and trans fats are the ingredients that are most concerning to consumers, followed closely by high-fructose corn syrup, saturated fats, preservatives and aspartame. According to Sensient Food Colors, 40 percent of Americans and 55 percent of “millennial moms” are concerned with artificial colors in snacks.
So what can the baking and snack industries do to continue meeting the changing tastes and demands of health-conscious consumers who want to avoid artificial ingredients?
Continue creating healthier options, incorporating items consumers look for, such as whole grains, fiber, fruit and nuts
Avoid using artificial flavors, sweeteners and colors in products whenever possible
Incorporate real, fresh ingredients into products whenever possible
Food manufacturers constantly chase food trends to meet consumer demands and remain relevant. The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the events of the past year serve as important reminders of how quickly things change, and the increasingly active role of consumers in the manufacturing process.