Series: How to deliver on what today’s health-conscious food consumers want – SmartBrief

This is the first in a series of posts looking at how food companies, retailers and foodservice operators can reach four key consumer archetypes that are shaping the industry today. Keep an eye out for the next post that focuses on the adventurous consumer.

Health is on the minds of more consumers now than ever before. Whether it’s wanting healthier versions of classic dishes and snack foods or searching for grocery items that cater to particular dietary needs, the quest for a healthier lifestyle is pervading the food industry in full force.

Today’s engaged, health-conscious consumer is increasingly reaching for items that promote gut health, good digestion, reduced inflammation, good neurological function and a healthy metabolism, confirmed Melissa Abbott, vice president of Hartman Retainer Services at The Hartman Group.

“Consumers view their health and wellness holistically, incorporating a balanced set of lifestyle habits that ladder up to a more general sense of feeling well,” Abbott explained. “Eating real, less processed food is the linchpin of both health and wellness – and thus an important component of supporting mental health and cognition.”

Plant-based growth

It’s no secret that plant-based foods are a major staple in the diets of today’s health-focused consumers. US retail sales of plant-based foods have increased 11.4% in the past year, according to the Plant Based Foods Association and The Good Food Institute, with milks, meat alternatives and meals leading the way. Similarly, the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Industry 2030 report puts plant-based protein near the top of trends expected to grow in popularity over the next decade.

Improved taste and texture have added to the appeal of plant-based meat, said Tim Powell, managing principal at Foodservice IP. Powell believes plant-based meats have staying power even amid the coronavirus pandemic since many plant-based burger eaters are meat eaters, not solely vegetarians.

While meat remains an important protein among US consumers, “consumer awareness of the risks and challenges of meat consumption have grown substantially in recent years,” Abbott said.

Specialty diets & functional claims

Specialty diets and ingredient claims are also trending among today’s consumers. The ketogenic diet, which puts an emphasis on high-fat foods, is expected to have a market worth more than $15 billion by 2027, according to Kerry. Other specialty diets, including low carbohydrate, high protein and gluten free, remain popular among consumers, with FMI and Label Insight finding that 47% of grocery shoppers stick to specific dietary guidelines while shopping for food.

Also important to today’s consumers are foods with a functional boost, whether it’s in the form of a beverage, snack or takeout meal. In fact, a Tastewise report found consumers have been increasingly looking for food and beverage options that offer functional benefits during the past year, but interest has risen even more during the pandemic, Audrey Altmann wrote in another SmartBrief article.

“In this time of global pandemic, consumers are increasingly aware of their health and practices necessary to defend it,” the report noted.

A separate study from Kerry found that 65% of consumers look for food and drinks with added functional ingredients, and 25% are consciously reaching for superfoods. Indeed, functional ingredient inclusions such as hemp, CBD, collagen and certain vitamins are a growing segment in snacks and meals.

“Some consumers use brain-enhancing products in search of increased clarity, focus or memory enhancement while others are looking to obtain a state of augmented flow and creativity,” Abbott said. “In addition to compounds more commonly thought of as nootropic, many consumers use cannabis and other derived compounds to help obtain desired mental states.”

The growth of the CBD, hemp and cannabis category is largely due to the fact that consumer behaviors toward it are changing, Larry Levin, EVP, Market & Shopper Intelligence, IRI, said at the FMI Midwinter Conference in January.

“Retailer and consumer education is necessary,” he said. “CBD is growing because we’re accepting it.”

Healthy opportunities ahead

The food and beverage industry is well positioned to turn these trends into new product and unique marketing opportunities, and education on all fronts — to and by food retailers, manufacturers, foodservice operators and consumers — is key.

“Puget Sound retailer PCC Community Markets and Panera Bread have both demonstrated how to communicate progress, not perfection regarding their ongoing commitment to animal welfare,” Abbott said. “This comes at a time when more label-reading consumers are seeking non-CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) sourced animal protein as concern over factory farming is linked to animal welfare concerns and is believed to inhibit gut health via antibiotic use.”

Kroger, which will be adding 50 plant-based food products to its Simple Truth Emerge brand and has also added a dedicated plant-based meat section within the traditional meat department at many of its stores, plans to interview shoppers and test different ways to communicate with them about plant-based foods. Working alongside the Plant Based Foods Association, the retailer’s analytics subsidiary will use this information along with sales data to help the broader food retail industry learn how to better merchandise these items.

In functional foods, food supplier Cargill has found that the snack industry is ripe for innovation. Snack bars, candy, salty snacks and sweet baked goods that include protein and fiber will see continued success, and botanical ingredients and superfoods ranging from turmeric to matcha will soon be add-ons that suppliers should consider including in their products.

“Where consumers once viewed snacks as indulgences, today’s shoppers increasingly look for snacks that can help them achieve their health and wellness goals,” said Pam Stauffer, Cargill’s global marketing programs manager, about the company’s  Snack Foods Opportunity Research in another SmartBrief article. “It’s not so much that consumers are turning away from supplements. Rather, they are also expecting more from the foods and beverages they consume.”

Beyond snacks, Abbott believes functional foods have a more prominent place at the table as consumer desires shift with the current health crisis.

“As food-as-medicine further enters the mainstream, consumers will seek out attributes currently found in premium products in more accessible formats, easier-to-use products, more approachable flavors and at lower price points,” she said.

With specific diets, Chipotle watched its guests custom create lifestyle-specific bowls when ordering and now markets its Lifestyle Bowls toward consumers who follow paleo, keto and Whole30 diets, and the restaurant is able to use existing ingredients to make them.

“…[S]o it made sense to offer delicious options via our online channels that help people easily order bowls with real ingredients that fit their wellness goals,” said Chief Marketing Officer Chris Brandt in a news release. “Now more than ever, Americans are embracing new and varied approaches to healthy living and wellness.”

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