ATLANTA -- Changes in the eating habits of Americans are being driven far more by a need for convenience than concerns about nutrition.
That is according to David Jenkins, vice president of NPD Group, Park Ridge, Ill., a market research firm that works with several food marketers.
"Most of America is not fit and eating healthy. Changing behavior about food consumption is not because people are being healthy, but because of concerns about convenience, taste and price," Jenkins said at the annual conference of the Refrigerated Foods Association held here late last month. He made his remarks as a panelist at a session titled "Profile of Consumer Eating Habits."
According to NPD studies, only about 15% of the U.S. population says they are consuming more low-fat foods than before. Jenkins said he doesn't regard this information in a negative light, however. "This group is the most likely to be your regular customer," he pointed out.
Yet this force is not as statistically powerful as the need for quick meals, said another session participant.
"Convenience is an increasingly major factor in driving food trends," added panelist Lou Cooperhouse, president of The Cooperhouse Group, a consulting group in the refrigerated food industry. "Technology has taken us off the factory floors and put us behind desks running computers and telephones. As a result, our time is precious and more valued, and our spare time is really minimized. Foods therefore need to be convenient to purchase and convenient to prepare.
"Presentation and packaging are very important, because consumers on the go are shopping more frequently and don't plan their meals in advance," added Cooperhouse, who cited a recent study in which 75% of those responsible for weeknight dinners did not know at 4 p.m. what they would prepare for their household that night.
Jenkins characterized the general societal attitude about healthy eating as ambivalent and even somewhat contradictory.
"When there is a discussion about health, it usually is very much oversimplified," he said. "We either speak of Americans' growing demand and concern for healthy products or of Americans' return to a fat-laden diet. The answers about Americans' concerns are not simply a 'yes' or 'no,' but how far 'yes.' "
He then itemized a long list of statistics to make the point that the nutrition-conscious part of the marketplace is not growing as fast as some would like to believe.
According to NPD research, about 50% of Americans are "very cautious" about meals that contain high levels of fat, while another 25% are "somewhat cautious." Yet over the last few years, these percentages have not been increasing.
Compliance with USDA recommendations that six to 11 portions of grain and four to six fruit servings a day be consumed are not often followed. The American average is three grains and less than two fruit servings per day. "This is a sign that most of the race is still in front of us. These are indicators that we obviously have a long way to go in order to make structural changes in the way we eat," he said.
Media and ad hype that "thin is beautiful" has actually lost favor with the public. In 1985, 55% of NPD survey respondents agreed that "people who are not overweight look a lot more attractive." By last year, that figure had dipped below 40% Since mandatory labeling guidelines went into effect last year, about one-third of customers claim they "check labels more often" for nutritional information. Yet over the last several quarterly surveys, that percentage has not increased. NPD studies asking consumers to rate the "least healthy" and "most healthy" foods have held firm, with very little shifting.
"Perceptions about what is good and bad for you haven't been revolutionized but only slightly adjusted," said Jenkins.