What do you think about nutrient-dense foods?
This is the central question behind a recent survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation that set out to examine consumer understanding, perceptions, and behaviors around nutrient density. Nutrient density is a relatively new term, though by no means a new concept: essentially, it refers to the balance between the beneficial nutrients a food contains, such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber, versus the nutrients that should be limited as part of a healthy diet, including saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.
In the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, an important federal document intended to help American consumers make healthy food choices, there are strong recommendations around choosing nutrient-dense foods and beverages, and the term itself appears frequently throughout the report. But given that “nutrient-dense” isn’t necessarily a phrase that’s in common use quite yet, the IFIC Foundation thought it was important to learn more about whether consumers understood the term, and how, if at all, they chose to apply it to their habits and decisions around purchasing and eating food. The result is the Consumer Understanding and Influence of Nutrient Density Survey, which includes responses from 1,000 adults who were interviewed in late September 2019.
Key takeaways from the survey include:
A majority of people have heard of nutrient density, but few feel comfortable explaining it.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents surveyed (64%) said either that they knew (or thought they knew) what nutrient density means, or that they had at least heard the term before. However, only 24% of respondents said they would be able to explain the meaning of nutrient density to someone else. On the other hand, over one-third of respondents (36%) said that nutrient density was an entirely new term to them. As summarized by the CEO of the IFIC Foundation, these results reveal the important fact that familiarity with the term nutrient density does not necessarily equal understanding.
When it comes to identifying nutrient-dense foods, consumer confidence is split.
The fact that consumer confidence is divided almost equally when it comes to identifying foods that are (or are not) nutrient-dense is another clear indication that people who may be familiar with the term aren’t necessarily clear on its meaning. When asked how confident they felt in their ability to identify nutrient-dense foods, only 43% of respondents described themselves as very or somewhat confident. Nearly as many people (42%) described themselves as not very or not at all confident.
Nutrient density is not a key driver of food purchasing decisions.
Given that many people are not clear on the meaning of nutrient density and not fully confident in their ability to identify nutrient-dense foods, it’s not surprising to find that nutrient density is not a significant motivating factor for most people when it comes to making purchasing decisions around food and beverages. Responses to this question were fairly similar to the results revealed in the IFIC’s 2019 Food and Health Survey: most people (58%) ranked “taste” as their most or second-most important consideration for food purchases, while 45% cited “price.” “Nutrient density” came in second from last, with just 15% of respondents ranking it as the first or second factor driving their purchasing choices.
A number of different considerations could encourage people to increase their intake of nutrient-dense foods.
The question of how to help people choose and eat more nutrient-dense foods and beverages is an important one for food producers and public health organizations alike. When asked what would encourage them to eat more nutrient-dense foods, one-third of respondents said they would boost their intake if these foods were more budget-friendly, while 29% said they would if the foods were easier to identify. Other factors that could help increase consumption included improved taste, and learning and knowing more about the concept of nutrient density.
Nutrient-dense options are most popular at breakfast.
When people do think about choosing nutrient-dense options, they are more likely to do so during the most important meal of the day: breakfast. Some 72% of survey respondents said that breakfast was the most or second-most likely meal during which they would seek out nutrient-dense foods. Next, 57% people gave that ranking to lunch, and 49% to dinner, indicating that a focus on nutrient density decreases for most people as the day goes on, perhaps due to factors such as the stresses of daily schedules. For eating outside the three main daily meals, specifically for snacks and dessert, seeking out nutrient-dense foods was not a high priority for the vast majority of respondents.
When identifying nutrient-dense foods, people are more likely to focus on beneficial nutrients rather than nutrients to avoid.
In their efforts to identify nutrient-dense foods, people are generally looking for healthy nutrients that they want to include in their diet, rather than less beneficial nutrients they want to limit. For example, respondents listed vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber as the top options they would search for on a Nutrition Facts label in order to determine whether a food could be considered nutrient-dense. Saturated fat and sodium, on the other hand, were the lowest-ranked choices.