In a country obsessed with weight it’s easy to mistake diet fads with trends in eating healthy. But, healthy eating may just be the new status quo for Americans nationwide, no matter their income level. Today’s article will take a peek at this new healthy eating across income levels, and will also take a brief look vulnerable segment, i.e., the eating habits of low income families.
Consumers have been hot for foods labeled natural, organic, and sustainable for a few years now, as well as ones that are minimally processed and low-fat. (Statistically, 44% of Americans have gone organic and 60% now cut out soda, while 90% aim for regular fruits and veggies in their diet, and 70% try for whole grains.) Since then, health issues have evolved to include concerns with GMO, especially with regards to having foods containing GMOs labeled — champions for the movement have achieved nationwide changes thanks to a law going into action this year in Vermont, closely related to the fact that 43% of consumers worldwide want GMO free products. Changing ideas about food are even heavily reflected in the USDA’s new guidelines. While counting calories is still important to many, here’s a few more trends that have gained traction in the last few years or will be gaining heavy traction throughout 2016:
- Biodynamic foods (i.e., the next stage of the organic revolution, encompassing self-sustaining farms that don’t use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides)
- Probiotics and prebiotics
- Emphasis on fruits and veggies (beyond vegetarian and vegan diet focuses)
- “Wholesome” or “clean” foods (i.e., non-processed, low-sugar, no artificial colors/flavors)
- Locavorism (technically coined in 2005, it’s only now gaining mainstream attention)
Voting with the Dollar
It isn’t just that Americans expect these healthful options, they’re also willing to pay more for them — 88% of those polled by Nielsen were willing to do so in a 2015 survey. To be fair, this is within the scale of their income bracket — celebrity foodies will typically lead the healthful pack thanks to the disposable income they can spend on private chefs and decadent or exotic ingredients. For instance, General Mills sees gluten-free as a bright spot in development that grew more than $10 million in 2015. Maybe it’s the healing economy, or maybe it’s a generation raised with a healthy awareness of healthful habits and constant warnings against obesity, but this is also a cross-generational trend, from the youthful Gen Z right back to the Baby Boomer big spenders. After all, global sales of healthy food products (not the same thing as health-food options) will reach $1 trillion by 2017.
Healthy Beyond the Wealthy
Experts in 2013 actually believed that diets were changing across income levels due to the economic downturns. Why? People would have to eat at home rather than eating out and were tracking calories thanks to free apps. But this dip in caloric intake was only the beginning of the trend that had nothing to do with fads.
According to a study released in 2015 by Deloitte Consulting for the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the consumer value equation itself is shifting, and the changes can be felt through every region, generation, and income level in the country. Preferences trend to the nuanced, “evolving” preference, per the study, i.e., lasting health and wellness, social responsibility (see: ending agricultural human trafficking), and safety. The expectation by researchers was to see these trends prominently in segments that could, quite frankly, afford them, but the demographic was much, much wider than anticipated.
What’s more, trends show that shoppers are doing their research. Some 40% of consumers report using their smartphones to do that research in store, and what they’re looking for in addition to notes about health and responsibility is transparency, quality, and value. Consumers want to buy the right amounts for them, and that probably isn’t going to be in bulk, either.
The Truth About Food Deserts
For the uninitiated, food deserts are areas that have little to no access to fresh foods, and almost exclusively provide high-processed, unhealthful foods with minimal amounts of variety. Most of the time, these areas are economic development areas, due in no small part to the fact that transportation is key to bringing fresh foods into these areas. That is to say, even a town that is technically a food desert but which meets a certain income or wealth threshold, the citizens can afford to travel to places that provide fresh foods. Low-income areas can’t achieve this, either because transportation is limited or because retailers aren’t offering these options, and thus they’re 12 percentage points more likely to report food insufficiency.
Such areas tend to be urban (although not exclusively); for example, 500 thousand people in Chicago live in food deserts. They’re also sometimes referred to as “food swamps” because of the proliferation of fast food options as well as “corner stores” that technically qualify as grocers despite the lack of real food options; another 400 thousand Chicago citizens are limited to these options. Similarly, in New York City, 750 thousand live in food deserts while another 3 million have limited access or reach for grocers with fresh fruits and similar.
Furthermore, the simple entrance of grocery options aren’t enough to correct the issue; because poverty is at the heart of the problem, people still can’t afford to buy those foods. Social issues can complicate the matter as well. Consider Fairfield, Alabama: when Walmart closed its store there, the area lost 40% of its sales tax revenue in addition to removing access to foods as well as access to critical medications via its pharmacy. This serves to plunge the citizens into further difficulty and creates a cycle of behavior.
Programs are Critical Solutions
Programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) are incredibly effective: 4.7 million families were fed and lifted out of poverty by SNAP in 2014 alone. What’s more, the program actually generates economic activity to the tune of $1.73 for every $1 in benefits. Other federal programs, including First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!,” the CED-HFFI program through the HHS, the Department of the Treasury’s CDFI, and even the WIC are providing national assistance to promote better access to local foods. There are also community oriented efforts on the state and local level. Los Angeles put restrictions on the number of fast food restaurants allowed in underserved areas, for example, while New York developed the Green Carts program to build jobs in addition to food options. Grass roots efforts have also started in places like Greensboro, North Carolina, where a critical grocer closed and was not replaced; the community developed a co-op to provide jobs and food.
As you can see, in 2016, healthy eating across income levels It’s time to take a look at your marketing and pricing strategies, not to mention the way you approach your product labeling. Offering healthy products at healthy prices will go a long way to earning loyal customers, and remember, giving impoverished areas true access to healthy foods is strong cause marketing that may just boost your bottom line too.