Washington, D.C., May 18, 2022 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Major changes in Americans’ food attitudes and behaviors are emerging in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the 2022 Food & Health Survey conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC).
The 17th annual survey of U.S. consumers has revealed a substantial impact of stress on the way we eat, significant increases in the adoption of specific diets and eating patterns, concerns over food and beverage prices, and the food priorities and buying power of Gen Z.
“Even more so than in past years, the 2022 Food & Health Survey is showing sharp changes, over a relatively short period, in many of our beliefs and behaviors when it comes to the foods we purchase and consume,” said IFIC CEO Joseph Clayton. “Some of these changes are clearly attributable to the lasting scars of the pandemic, while others bear all the hallmarks of significant generational shifts”, he added.
The 2022 Survey involved 1,005 adults ages 18–80, and for the first time it also included an oversample of adult Gen Z consumers, ages 18-24.
The Emerging Influence of Gen Z
Gen Z might be the youngest cohort of adults, but they are beginning to flex their consumer muscle in ways that previously haven’t been seen, driving attitude changes on sustainability and the environment across the broader population. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of Gen Z believe that their generation is more concerned about the environmental impact of food choices than other generations, followed closely by Millennials (71%), with whom they share many perspectives and common purchasing behaviors. Compared with Baby Boomers, Gen Z is more likely to purchase products labeled as “Small carbon footprint/carbon neutral” and “Plant-based.”
And yet, some of Gen Z’s viewpoints may come as a surprise: compared with Millennials, they are less likely to believe that their personal food choices have at least a moderate impact on the environment (50% vs. 67%, respectively), and they are also less likely to be worried about food waste, though the majority in both groups expresses concern (61% vs. 69%).
When it comes to health, Gen Z seems to take a more holistic approach as compared to older counterparts: they are the only generation with emotional/mental health surfacing in the top three health benefits sought from foods, beverages or nutrients, and they’re more likely than Gen X or Boomers to seek out options like therapy, mindfulness or meditation for stress reduction.
Younger consumers are also driving a big shift toward online food shopping. Millennials and Gen Z have similar purchase patterns, with 35% of Gen Z and 37% of Millennials shopping online for food at least once a week — compared to 24% of Gen X and 11% of Boomers. The overall number of adults who shop for food online at least weekly increased to 25% in 2022 vs. 20% in 2021.
Stress-Eating and Snack Nation
“We’ve all heard of ‘eating our feelings,’ but the metaphor is anything but a joke,” noted Ali Webster, IFIC Director of Research and Nutrition Communications. “Most Americans (56%) report feeling ‘very’ (22%) or ‘somewhat’ (34%) stressed over the past six months,” she added. Younger generations are more likely to say they’re “very stressed,” with 33% of Gen Z, 29% of Millennials and 25% of Gen X saying so, compared with just 10% of Boomers. Many Americans are turning to food in order to cope: about 1 in 4 (24%) of adults said they always or often eat when they’re feeling stressed.
The top areas where Americans have made changes to reduce or manage stress include sleep (41%), exercise (40%), mental health (30%) and diet/nutrition (30%). Among those who made changes to diet/nutrition, the most common changes are trying to eat healthier (54%), focusing on healthy behaviors instead of weight loss (38%) and following a specific eating pattern or diet (37%).
Emotions may also be contributing to a snacking boom. About three-quarters (73%) of adults in 2022 said they snack at least once a day, up a stunning 15% in just one year (58% in 2021). Not surprisingly, people who reported feeling very stressed (29%) in last six months are more likely to snack three or more times a day than those who are only somewhat stressed (10%).
Snacking preferences shift throughout the day. Morning snackers prefer fruit (43%), while those who snack in the evening gravitate toward savory/salty snacks (40%); candy, chocolate, and other treats (38%); and cookies, cake, and ice cream (37%).
A New Era of Eating Patterns?
One of the most significant upticks in the 2022 survey was the number of Americans who reported following a diet or eating pattern, which soared 13% in the past year alone (39% in 2021 vs. 52% in 2022), driven primarily by consumers under age 50. The most common diets or eating patterns in 2022 included clean eating (16%), mindful eating (14%), calorie-counting (13%) and plant-based (12%).
While the number of those who diet or follow an eating pattern jumped, the top motivations for doing so remained the same as 2021: protecting long-term health (35%) and losing weight (34%). Weight loss/weight management is also on the minds of many who are seeking health benefits from foods, beverages or nutrients: 30% of survey takers reported looking to achieve this benefit from their food and beverage choices, narrowly edging out the number looking seeking benefits related to digestive/gut health (29%), cardiovascular/heart health (28%) and improved sleep (26%). The most highly sought-after health benefit, however, was improved energy and less fatigue (37%).
Nearly 1 in 3 (31%) said they’ve been eating more protein from whole-plant sources this year, with other increases including people reporting consuming more soy-based milk/yogurt (18%) and other plant-based dairy alternatives (23%).
Then there’s this: We’ve all wished we could take a magical pill as a shortcut to better health. Indeed, the overall number of adults who said they would rather take medication than change their lifestyle shot up 22% from 2012 to 2022 (16% vs. 38%) — and the younger the consumer, the more likely they were to seek that shortcut. About half (49%) of adults ages 18–34 in 2022 said they would choose the medication, a massive increase of 35% from 10 years ago. The reason for this shift isn’t entirely clear, though increases in prescription medication and dietary supplement use over the past decade, coupled with a rise in direct-to-consumer medical marketing, may be a major contributor.
A Battle Between Budget and Food Values
The 2022 survey suggests that Americans place a high value on sustainability. In 2022, 39% said environmental sustainability has an impact on their decisions to buy certain foods and beverages, up from 27% in 2019. In addition, more than half (57%) are concerned about food waste — although the top reason for concern was that it’s a waste of money (53%), with 40% saying that their concern was because of the impact on the environment. Social sustainability is also top-of-mind for many consumers: 45% said knowing that the workers who produce, distribute or serve the food are treated in a fair and equitable way is important in their decision to purchase a food or beverage.
However, the impact of inflation may be thwarting values-based food purchasing. The vast majority of consumers (83%) have noticed an increase in the cost of food and beverages. Among those who noticed price increases, 57% said they had to pay more for the same item and 29% said they purchased less than they otherwise would have.
Additionally, survey respondents were given a scenario with a hypothetical product that cost $3 and another that cost $5 but was produced in ways committed to the fair and equitable treatment of workers. Just 39% said they would purchase the higher-priced product vs. 61% who opted for the less expensive one. Findings were similar for a question on willingness to pay for an eco-friendly product.
All of this mirrors a consistent trend the Food and Health Survey has tracked for over a decade: when it comes to our food purchasing priorities, taste and price remain paramount while environmental sustainability trails far behind. In the midst of a climate crisis, and as the buying power of younger generations continues to grow, time will tell if this gap continues to narrow.
Survey results were derived from online interviews of 1,005 Americans ages 18 to 80, conducted March 23 to April 4, 2022, by Greenwald Research, using Dynata’s consumer panel. The results were weighted by age, education, gender, race/ethnicity and region to ensure that they are reflective of the American population ages 18 to 80, as seen in the 2021 Current Population Survey. The survey also included an oversample of Gen Z consumers (ages 18-24) to allow for statistical comparisons between generations. The oversample was analyzed separately from the main sample so as not to impact trended results.
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The International Food Information Council is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that promotes science-based information on nutrition, food safety and agriculture. Visit http://www.ific.org.