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The Healthy Foods Shopper You Thought You Knew

The Healthy Foods Shopper You Thought You Knew

It turns out the healthy foods consumer is more complicated than many thought.

A report unveiled last week provides a new window into this shopper's behavior, lifestyle and quirks. Even after years of media focus on this shopper, the report contains some key surprises.

First, a word about the report and its background. It was released last week at the inaugural Healthy Foods International Expo and Conference in Dallas, sponsored by SN and its SN Whole Health supplement, along with New Hope Natural Media. All are part of the B2B company Penton Media. The HFI event drew a wide spectrum of retailers and exhibitors, creating a new forum to exchange information about the booming healthy foods business in the grocery retail channel. Stories about the event appear in this issue on Page 1 and elsewhere.

The research report was the product of surveys of consumers, retailers and manufacturers, all conducted by New Hope Natural Media. The consumer responses, in particular, directed the spotlight on shopper priorities in navigating the world of health and wellness. Here are a few highlights, along with insights as to what they mean.

  • Food trumps other activities: Consumers ranked “eating healthy foods” at the top of a roster of 16 lifestyle choices that included exercising, taking vitamins and managing weight. This is very important news for the food industry, because if there ever was a question about food's relative importance to healthy lifestyles, it is now settled.

  • Wholesome trumps organic: Despite ongoing, high-profile gains for organics, only 18.9% of consumers placed organics in the highest priorities for their purchases. Far more important were whole grains; reduced fats and cholesterol; added vitamins and minerals; and antioxidants, among other attributes. This doesn't mean organic isn't a growth phenomenon, but it does put this segment in context within the larger food business.

  • Fear trumps hope: You might say many consumers are scared healthy. In the previously mentioned ranking of healthy food attributes consumers seek, five of the top seven involved elements removed from food — such as reduced trans fat or sodium — rather than what is in food. It seems food is sometimes viewed as a way to exorcise dietary “demons.”

  • Long memories trump reason: It doesn't matter that food health scares involving salmon, beef and other products might have ended months or even years ago. The impact often lingers in consumer memories and buying patterns, according to the findings. Undoubtedly, that's where educational campaigns should play a role.

  • Health trumps economy (sort of): The economy might be in recession, but health purchases are in expansion. Consumers continue to make health a central theme in their buying. However, they are sometime shifting to less expensive healthy products — perhaps trading natural for organic, but not abandoning the lifestyle altogether.

  • Supermarkets trump the natural channel: The healthy movement may have begun with the granola crowd, but conventional grocery leads other distribution channels in market share of healthy food sales, based on spending data. Compare 38.5% share for conventional grocery to 5.1% for natural products stores, and you can see how supermarkets are leading this game.