Whether they impact flavor, appearance, nutrition, freshness, or texture, food ingredients have been used for centuries for a variety of purposes. But the names of those ingredients or how they are described can make a big difference in whether we buy a particular food—or pass it by.
A new survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) is revealing just how big a role ingredients play in the food attitudes and purchasing habits of American consumers. The survey, “From ‘Chemical-Sounding’ to ‘Clean’: Consumer Perspectives on Food Ingredients,” shows that our interest is strong, “clean” is popular and health is paramount.
Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of adults say the ingredients in a food or beverage have at least a moderate influence on what they buy.
When we are shopping, the product itself is overwhelmingly where we look for information about the ingredients: 62 percent consult the ingredients list and 52 percent look at front-of-package information. Other sources of information trail far behind, including the websites or social media accounts of brands/companies (20 percent), family or friends (16 percent), and QR codes on packages (8 percent).
But the calculus changes somewhat when Americans seek more general information about food ingredients, with 20 percent saying family and friends are their top source, followed by websites or social media accounts of brands/companies (19 percent), the top articles shown after an online search (18 percent), their personal health care provider (16 percent), and websites or social media accounts of U.S. government agencies (15 percent). Only 4 percent of Americans cite food/nutrition social media influencers or bloggers as their top source of food ingredient information.
Not only is the influence of ingredients on purchasing decisions high, but consumer attentiveness is also growing, with 62 percent of respondents saying they are paying more attention to ingredient lists now than they did five years ago.
The survey also found pluralities of consumer support for the benefits of preservatives: 42 percent agree that adding preservatives to foods is a way to help reduce food waste (21 percent disagree) and 39 percent agree that adding an ingredient to a food would be positive if it extended shelf life (23 percent disagreed).
The words “natural” and “artificial” elicited a strong reaction when it comes to food choices. About half (48 percent) of Americans say they seek out natural flavors at least some of the time, 41 percent seek out natural sweeteners, 40 percent seek out natural preservatives, and 35 percent seek out colors from natural sources. In contrast, artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, and preservatives were sought out by only about one in 10 consumers, with approximately half saying they avoid each of them at least some of the time.
Survey respondents were also asked about their attitudes toward and definitions of “clean” ingredients and clean eating.
Nearly 2 in 3 survey takers (64 percent) say they try to choose foods made with clean ingredients. When these consumers were asked how they define clean ingredients, “not artificial or synthetic” was the top choice of 22 percent, while 16 percent chose “organic,” 15 percent chose “fresh,” 14 percent cited “something they know is nutritious,” and another 14 percent selected “natural.” At the bottom of the list, 6 percent cited the following options as their top choice: something with a familiar or recognizable name, something that doesn’t have a chemical-sounding name, and something with a name they can pronounce.
Similarly, consumers were asked about clean eating. Nearly half (46 percent) consider themselves to be clean eaters—with 21 percent ranking “eating foods that aren’t highly processed” as their top definition of the term (nearly half, 49 percent, ranked this in their top three). Another 14 percent of self-described clean eaters defined it as eating foods found in the fresh produce section, 13 percent as eating organic foods, 11 percent as eating foods with simple ingredients lists, and 9 percent defined it as eating foods with ingredients they just consider to be “clean.”
Emphasis on health
So why do Americans choose to eat “clean”? In a word, it’s “health.”
Of those who choose foods and beverages with clean ingredients, 25 percent said their top motivation for doing so was seeking out health benefits from foods and beverages with clean ingredients, while 21 percent are looking to avoid the possible harmful effects of chemical-sounding ingredients, 18 percent who most want to avoid the possible harmful effects of unfamiliar ingredients, 18 percent who want to be familiar with what goes into the foods and beverages they choose, and 17 percent who think foods and beverages with clean ingredients are more nutritious.
Health-related factors also dominated the list of reasons consumers avoid ingredients with chemical-sounding names: 26 percent chose general health concerns for themselves as the top reason, 20 percent chose general health concerns for their family, 13 percent cited cancer, 8 percent cited that the ingredients were unfamiliar to them, 7 percent chose digestive issues and 7 percent cited environmental concerns. Concerns around ingredient sensitivities (6 percent), food allergies (5 percent), and foodborne illness (5 percent) ranked just slightly lower.
Survey results were derived from online interviews of 1,054 Americans ages 18+, conducted May 6–10, 2021. The results were weighted to ensure proportionate results.