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10/02/2020 – Health Series / Diet / US / Nielsen

Shifting pounds in the States: The US market for healthy foods


In the US, consumers aren’t eating as well as they’d like to – and that’s an opportunity for growth in consumer packaged goods, says market research giant Nielsen.


There’s room to grow for companies trying to win with healthy foods in America. The billions in sales growth from fresh foods (+US$4.6bn), organics (+US$925m) and foods that support plant-based diets (+US$982m) can often be mistaken as signs of health-food saturation. But the reality is that consumers aren’t eating as well as they’d like to – and that’s an opportunity for growth in consumer packaged goods (CPG). 


The gap between intention to eat better and action isn’t from lack of trying: Nearly all (99 per cent of) Americans purchased a low-fat food or beverage item last year, yet households only did so on average about twice a month. Similarly, US homes are only buying organic, sugar-free and high-protein foods about once a month in each case. 


Changing behaviours and expectations


Statistically speaking, a dark cloud looms over eating patterns in America. In 2018, one in five Americans identified as obese, and one in nine homes lacked access to enough food at some point in the year. Perpetuating these problems, nearly one in four admit to never or rarely exercising. Yet, Americans have bright intentions for the future, and this presents manufacturers and retailers with a golden opportunity to capitalise on this optimism by removing the barriers that separate what people want to eat and drink with what they actually consume.


Two-thirds of Americans say their eating habits have changed over the last five years. That’s a lot of shifting behaviours that could be monetised. But this change in intention is only valuable if manufacturers and retailers can fulfil consumer intentions with available products. When surveyed about their eating habits today and into the next five years, Americans say they want to eat and live more healthfully. Three in 10 say they are making more healthy food choices than they were a year ago. Consumer intentions like these can help manufacturers and retailers spot gaps in ways products are not meeting evolving consumer needs – so they can close them. 


Nielsen research confirms that consumers, particularly younger ones, have a new set of expectations for food products. 


There’s no single definition for what constitutes healthy food today. And, Millennials have certainly indicated that health is not the sole factor driving changes in eating habits. Millennials are most likely to define healthy eating in practical ways, whereas surveyed Boomers, Greatest Generation consumers and even Gen-Xers indicate their eating habits are more heavily guided by health maintenance or specific health conditions. For example, Millennials think about healthy eating more holistically than other generations, placing a rising importance in food for the mind. More so than any other cohort, Millennials feel healthy eating isn’t just about nutrition and diet; they believe it extends to mental wellness, stress management and saving both money and time. Millennials are two to three times more likely than the oldest generations to change their eating habits in order to manage mental health, finances and time.


Cracking the equation


But translating these ideals into products on the shelf is a tall order to fill. And so, we centre on Americans’ cry for dietary help today. To put it simply, consumers, especially Millennials, want to buy foods that work ‘harder’ for them and their lifestyles. But the values and desires that drive their lives make for a seemingly impossible equation companies must solve: How can people save time and money while maintaining good overall health, mental strength and stress management? 


To answer the equation, Nielsen has broken down the behaviours surrounding food affordability, time-savings and products that promote healthy lives and minds:  


Americans are drinking, not just eating, their snacks, and beverages can help bridge the gap to time savings with healthier eating. In fact, beverages are among the top trending consumable categories today. And while things like value-added water and energy beverages may not be the most filling when it comes to a snack occasion, for many consumers, drinks aren’t typically intended to serve as a meal replacement. More so than many other reasons, three in 10 Americans say they are more likely to drink beverages “as a way to revive or sustain energy levels”. 


Many companies have already tapped into the potential of value-added beverages. Sales of beverages infused with marijuana, for example, have grown nearly 50 per cent since 2018. Beverage sales are also booming in the digital space, with more consumers opting to shop online, as e-commerce sales of beverages are up 45 per cent over the last year. The path to consumption can be as simple as untwisting a bottle cap with drinks, yet beverages can still provide the functional or frictionless shopping access to meet consumer needs. 


A boom in ‘brain foods’


Mental health and stress management are another part of the ‘impossible equation’ that food and beverage products must solve for. And it’s not just beverages that are innovating to bridge the gap to healthier eating in America. The future of food is grounded in uniting the health of the body and the mind.


Mental illness is a prolific health concern in America, as is the related struggle to get sufficient and restful sleep. The Centers for Disease Control & prevention (CDC) reports that an estimated 50 per cent of all Americans have been diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their life, and over one in every three adults fail to get enough sleep on a regular basis. This needs to change, and CPG consumables can play a key role in the therapy process. 


Already, you can find billions worth of products with marketing claims or proven ingredients that indicate support of brain health, anxiety, sleep or depression. In fact, the top ‘brain foods’ in American stores today include tuna, fresh beef and non-dairy yogurt. Consumer awareness and care for mental wellness has certainly improved. Therefore, companies need to prioritise mental health just as much as they do physical health in encouraging dietary changes in America. 


Price remains the ultimate obstacle


But even foods that save time or improve mental health must be reasonably priced. This is an ultimate barrier to closing the gap between what Americans want to consume and what they actually end up buying. Consumers won’t try what they don’t believe they can afford.


Packaged frozen and shelf-stable produce, for example, are well-positioned to capitalise here. Without sacrificing on many health benefits, options like frozen raspberries or packaged bean sprouts cost nearly half as much (per pound) as the fresh equivalents and can be stored and used when it suits the end user. A busy family can stock frozen and packaged produce for quite some time, and with the right reminders and ideas for use-cases by companies, they can become regular and price-conscious access points to healthy food consumption. Companies playing in this space need to exploit the wallet-friendly nature of these options and inspire meal occasions using back-of-the-freezer or pantry produce.  


Manufacturers and retailers also have an opportunity to promote the price efficiency of certain fresh meats as healthy protein options. Where trendy and convenient protein sources like jerky (25 cents per gram), nutrition bars (20 cents per gram) and nuts (13 cents per gram) suit on-the-go consumers, they are sold at six to 12 times the price per gram of chicken, pork and turkey. For the 55 per cent of Americans who prioritise high-protein content when deciding what to buy, this message of protein price accessibility could draw renewed attention to traditional meat-based goods. Distracted by power messaging about nutrition bars or meat snacks, many consumers could actually be swayed by re-education on the protein content in a serving of fresh meat, for example. For the price affordability per gram, there may be opportunity to direct protein-seeking consumers back to a meat-based source. 


Convenient products that save time and smart foods that cater to more than just physical health are only effective when sold at accessible price points.  


Lowering barriers to healthy foods


Companies must tackle concerns directly and consistently in order to lower barriers to entry with healthy food consumption. And according to Americans, price matters most when it comes to future food and beverage consumption. For both initial trial and long-term adoption, careful price management can make all the difference between landing in a basket and staying on the shelf.


One-third of Americans say they will prioritise price when it comes to what they consume over the next five years. Additionally, 75 per cent believe it’s important to always get the best price on a product. This isn’t ‘new’ news, but it’s interesting to see where consumers are and are not willing to splurge, as well as to gain insight into the product details that ground these preferences.


The rise of health-focused private label


For food companies, the message is clear. Price is the dominant driver of food purchases unless they’re given other factors to consider. With the exception of alcoholic beverages, a sizeable share of Americans are likely to base their food purchase decisions predominantly on price. The gap between intention and action for healthier eating boils down how brands can force the consumer habit to consider health-oriented attributes, too. 


Store brands have made great strides in offering both value and specialised products that tout better-for-you health aspects. In the US, private-label CPG sales have soared to nearly US$146 billion in the latest year, and sales are growing at two times the rate of name brands. How are they maintaining these trends? To consumers, the value-driven reputation of store brands remains strong, as 67 per cent of Americans agree that store brands are usually an extremely good value for the money. But at the same time, a look at purchase trends highlights that store brands aligned to better-for-you product attributes have, in some cases, been able to charge a premium and still drive strong growth. 


Health-oriented private labels have even been able to drive strong sales when they are more expensive than name brands. Store branded products without artificial colours and flavours highlight an area where retailers are successfully charging more for a healthier product because consumers have bought into the value proposition. Products will win by being known as the best representation of the health attributes they are aligned to. In this case, it’s not about which company or retailer is backing the brand; it’s about how well they uphold an attribute, such as being ‘free from’ undesirable ingredients. Private labels are doing this well, and that trust is earning them the privilege of being sold at a premium across many categories. 


Aligning with healthy attributes


Looking specifically at the food and beverage space, the pace of growth among store brands was slower last year. While store-brand food and beverage sales were up nearly five per cent in 2018, they achieved just three per cent growth last year, which is closer to branded sales growth of two per cent. The fact that there’s no commanding growth leader between name brands and store brands in the food and beverage space points to a white space of opportunity for all brands. Both retailers and manufacturers have the potential to be famous for the best execution of a healthy product. Shape food interests by educating consumers about the value of products manufactured without pesticides or chemicals. Alternatively, strive to make price a 

subsidiary factor. Do this through power messaging that makes the case for why consumers shouldn’t buy anything but your food or beverage. Bridging the gap to healthy eating will involve aligning to healthy attributes in the best and most believable ways compared with the competition. Competitive pricing can serve as a differentiator here, but it doesn’t have to be the sole defining factor in consumers’ decision making.


Over the next five years, monitoring sugar intake will be top-of-mind for 23 per cent of Americans. When we look at the top diet preferences across the nation, lowering sugar and adhering to diabetic diets are among the top 10. Americans want sugar-controlled diets – and companies (even in confectionery) need to help, not hurt, these habits. Brands that can get ahead of consumers’ dietary improvement goals can foster behaviour that moderates intake to healthy portions from which both consumers and companies can benefit.


Shifts in attitudes to sugar


For many consumers, monitoring their sugar intake starts at the source – purchases of pure sugar. Compared with 2018, the number of households buying sugar in America dropped by two percentage points last year. Dissecting that by age and ethnic cohorts, we start to see who’s cutting sugar and sweeteners from their pantry completely. Millennial households are spending about 20 per cent less than the US norm on sugar and sweeteners per year. And when compared with last year, those households have made 33-per-cent fewer overall trips to buy the category. And in just one year, we’ve seen a two-to-four-per-cent drop in annual spending on sugar and sweeteners by Black, White and Hispanic homes. But just because the buyer pool of sugar itself is shrinking, it doesn’t mean that sales of sugar-rich foods are failing.


In many cases, categories commonly known for their high sugar content are actually growing. But companies that focus solely on exploiting this growth may gain in the short-term at the cost of future potential. Governments are actively exploring ways to minimise sugar intake at the hand of sugary-product producers. Sugar taxes have had a huge global impact, and with soda taxes already implemented in many US locations, any future government mandates around sugar could hit the CPG category even harder. 


For confectionary, soft drinks, desserts and other related categories, now is the time to encourage health-minded consumption of indulgent products. Consider expanding or optimising your offerings with portion-controlled pack sizes for sweets. We know consumers like to indulge in sugary products, so improving the way they do so will help the both consumer and company. 


The evolution of eating habits


If the consumption of treats can be portion-controlled through innovative assortment, companies will be prepared to weather the storms of government regulations and sugar-related taxation. As public health messaging continues to inspire and drive better eating habits in America, consumers may abandon their worst food vices. But consumers who already have a healthy relationship with their indulgence of choice are less likely to uproot that routine altogether. This is the opportunity for long-term sustainability with sugar. The consumers ‘guilty’ of overeating full-sized chocolates may quit, but companies may be more likely to retain and engage those accustomed to a few snack-sized chocolates at a time – especially when that portion size falls within government-recommended daily sugar intakes.


Opportunities can be maximized in both the short- and long-term. For example, today’s short-term opportunities could include efforts to boost the growth of high-performing confectionery such as chewy candies and milk chocolate, while long-term efforts should look beyond what’s currently succeeding. In the States, candy is most often sold in a 5oz (142g) pack size. This is largely considered above the recommended serving size, which often ranges between 1-2oz (28–56g). When companies can encourage consumers to snack responsibly, they can align with long-term health goals that will only become increasingly more common. Individually wrapped chocolates are a leading factor to confectionary innovation, and the more companies can support smart snacking, the more they can protect their future alignment with consumer needs. Candy shoppers are engaged in aisle, and are therefore open to messaging that can help and not hurt the American diet. 


When it comes to the diet that many Americans have self imposed, it’s the foods with the power to boost and not break those goals that will win, by bridging the gap to healthier eating.

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