In early July the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation released its 2010 Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes Toward Food Safety, Nutrition and Health (pdf). This is the foundation’s fifth annual study gaining additional insight into the attitudes, opinions, and beliefs of American consumers. 

Looking at the results of this year’s survey alongside those from past years makes for an interesting comparison when weighed with the current economic and consumer trends.  This study asked Americans questions with regard to a number of different areas including health, weight, caffeine, food additives, food safety, food handling, purchasing influences, and food labeling. 

Though obesity rates are the highest in history, 77 percent of Americans are actively trying to lose weight. Sixty-nine percent claim to be changing the amount of food they eat while 63 percent are changing the types of foods they consume. Over two thirds of Americans report making changes to improve the healthfulness of their diet. This year 64 percent are trying to consume less trans and saturated fats, however these numbers are low compared to last year. In 2009 Americans reported higher rates of concern about the total fat, total saturated fat, trans fat, and calories from fat in their diets. 

buying-bread-featured.jpgA new topic on this year’s survey is the subject of sodium. Earlier this month Food Safety News reported on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey that showed that nearly all Americans consume too much salt. The International Food Information Council Foundation survey showed that 53 percent of Americans are concerned about the amount of sodium in their diet, and that six in ten regularly purchase low-sodium foods.

Compared to 2009, Americans are more focused on restricting their caffeine intake. Seventy-two percent report consuming caffeine in moderation this year compared to 66 percent last year.

According to the survey, 47 percent of Americans remain confident in the safety of their food supply. The corresponding 53 percent of Americans are split between two groups. Thirty-five percent are neither confident nor unconfident in the safety of their food (up from 26 percent in 2009). Those not confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply have fallen significantly from 24 percent last year to 18 percent this year.

A similar study by IBM in 2009 came up with some pretty conflicting numbers. The company found that less than 20 percent of consumers trust food companies to develop and sell food products that are safe and healthy.  It also found that 83 percent of respondents were able to name a food product that was recalled in the past two years. Of these foods the first one respondents remembered was peanut butter, with spinach in second place.

In the IBM study researchers also found that in the past year 45 percent of respondents had adapted their grocery shopping to obtain fresher foods, and that 77 percent of consumers wished that there was more information about the contents within their food. Seventy-six percent were found wishing there was more information about the origins of their product. This study by IBM surveyed grocery shoppers in the ten largest cities in America.

In the International Food Information Council Foundation survey, 77 percent of Americans indicated they believe that insuring food safety is the responsibility of the government, with 70 percent claiming it is also the responsibility of industry.  About 31 percent see food safety as a shared responsibility among five or more stakeholder groups including the government, farmers, producers, retailers, and consumers.

The foundation asked a number of questions about food handling precautions in the home. While still high compared to many nations, there appears to have been a slight decline in basic consumer food safety practices in the past two years. In 2008, 92 percent of consumers regularly washed their hands before preparing food, and that number fell to 89 percent this year.  In terms of microwave safety, 79 percent followed all cooking instructions in 2009 while this year that number fell ten percent to a lower 69 percent of consumers.

Corresponding with the large majority of Americans trying to loose weight, 68 percent of respondents actively use the Nutrition Facts Panel when choosing food. Of these consumers, 74 percent rank calories as the top piece of information they analyze. Sodium content comes next, with 63 percent of shoppers taking this into account. The numbers for sodium are up from 56 percent last year, reflecting an increase in media coverage of health problems associated with high sodium.

The survey did not ask about how often consumers visited farmers markets, however consumers were asked if they used supermarkets/grocery stores for the majority of their shopping.  Eighty-eight percent of people answered yes to this question, leaving us to assume that about 12 percent of people shop at alternative locations such as farmers markets, food stands, and grow their own. About 73 percent of Americans are happy with the healthfulness of the food offered at their supermarkets.

This study was conducted by Cogent Research of Cambridge, MA through an online survey of 90 questions. There were over 1,000 respondents. The study’s introduction explained, “The subject recruitment e-mail list for this study was constructed to be reflective of the U.S. population on key Census characteristics, adjusting for groups with historically lower response rates. To ensure the final results were representative of the adult population in the United States, the survey data were weighed against the latest U.S. Census projections on specific key attributes.”

An International Food Information Council Foundation press release said of the study, “This survey offers the important voice and insights of the consumer for the health professionals, government officials, educators, and other interested individuals who seek to improve the lives of Americans.”