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Survey Shows Consumers Keeping Healthy Eating Habits;Vigilance Declines when Consumer Visits Restau

NEW YORK - While roughly 76% of consumers say they have healthy eating habits, 57% of respondents of a recent poll consider themselves to be overweight. Moreover, the study found that once consumers go out, their attention to healthful dining is relaxed.

This contradiction raises a range of issues for the food industry as it works to address public concerns about obesity, food safety, portion size and product ingredients, according to the poll by the Consumer Business Practice of Deloitte & Touche USA LLP.

Deloitte recently surveyed nearly 4,000 consumers online about healthy eating, eating out, in-store food options, consumer responsibility and food purchasing. Several key findings of the survey include:

  • Seventy-four percent of respondents strongly disagree that lawsuits should be allowed against fast food chains.
  • More than half of consumers think that portion sizes at fast food establishments are too large.
  • A significant 83% believe that more healthy food choices should be offered at these eateries.
  • Although 54% believe that the individual, not the corporation, is solely responsible for healthy eating, 45% believe it's a combination of personal and corporate responsibility.
  • Three out of five respondents say the issue of country-of-origin labels on perishables is extremely or somewhat important to them.
  • Two-thirds are extremely to somewhat concerned about eating genetically modified foods.

    "Survey respondents mostly claim they try to eat healthy, read nutritional labels and that they would like to see more healthy food menu items, but given that 57% of the respondents also said they were overweight, it appears to be a struggle for most of us," said Tara Weiner, national managing partner of Deloitte's Consumer Business Practice. "The survey shows that the food industry has a lot of different issues to deal with, many of which directly contradict one another, making this such a challenging time for the industry."

    Weiner added, "Food corporations that are quick to understand and respond to consumers' call for help and provide more healthy menus may position themselves to achieve a greater hold in maintaining market share and solidify brand loyalty with their customers."

    Healthy Eating
    Consumers today have a heightened sense of need to eat nutritional foods. When asked to define healthy, 52% of respondents said it was eating in moderation, and 51% said it was following the food pyramid hierarchy -- more grains and fruits and less fats and sweets. Only about one in six said it was through eating low-carbohydrate or low-fat foods.

    "While half of respondents claim they eat healthy meals most of the time, there remains a sizeable portion of the population that is not very concerned about the issue," said Weiner. "Slightly more than a third said they eat healthy meals only about half the time, and 13% said they rarely or never eat healthy meals," Weiner continued. "This response helps explain the food industry's conundrum in attempting to satisfy a wide range of tastes and eating preferences among the general public."

    Eating Out: An Opportunity and a Responsibility
    When it comes to eating out, consumers today are slightly less vigilant in their calorie counting, compared to eating at home. Deloitte's survey indicates roughly half of the consumers who eat at fast food or casual dining establishments said they were concerned about eating a healthy meal. In contrast, 75% said they were concerned about eating a healthy meal when eating at home.

    "Fast food and casual dining establishments are the preferences of consumers. This creates a real opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility, for these types of establishments. As the survey shows, consumers today have a request for varied food options," said Weiner.

    More than half of respondents, 53%, said portion sizes at such establishments are too large. A strong 83% want more healthy food choices at these eateries. This preference was particularly strong among households with young children.

    In-Store Options: Better Labeling, Concerns About Genetically Modified Foods
    Consumers also are watchful of the foods they purchase in stores. Three out of five consumers, 61%, said country-of-origin labels on perishables were extremely or somewhat important. Moreover, 80% favor such labeling, even if it meant slightly higher prices. Two-thirds, 67%, of respondents had concerns about eating genetically modified foods.

    Nearly 60% of all respondents would like to see more low-calorie, high-fiber or low-carbohydrate food products available for sale. Sixty-four percent of overweight respondents wanted to see more low-calorie foods, but 52% of non-overweight consumers also expressed an interest in them. This might suggest that many consumers understand the numerous obesity issues impacting society as a whole, even if they themselves are not on diets.

    "History, however, suggests the industry's responses to eating trends have not always been financially rewarding. Fad diets over the years have created volatility in earnings for those companies that have responded to the changes in demand," commented Weiner.

    Consumers Take Responsibility: Disagree with Lawsuits
    While interested in increased availability of wholesome and healthy foods, respondents seem to appreciate that the greatest commitment to healthy eating needs to come from consumers themselves. Many, however, would also like corporations to support them in their efforts. When asked who was responsible for healthy eating, 54% said it lay squarely with the individual, and 45% said the responsibility should be shared between the individual and the corporation. Less than 1% (0.6) believes the onus of healthy eating falls solely on corporations.

    Consumers surveyed also strongly oppose obesity lawsuits being allowed against fast food chains. On a scale of 1 through 10, a significant 74% chose "1," indicating that they strongly disagree that these suits should be allowed.

    Food Purchasing Trends
    Respondents said they purchased food across a variety of outlets. Nearly all respondents, 98%, purchase food at a local supermarket, but approximately 30 - 40% also food shop at dollar stores, organic food stores or drug stores. Around 60% food shop at convenience stores or warehouse clubs, and 71% shop at large supercenters. The biggest draw for warehouse clubs was price, while supermarkets and convenience stores were convenient locations. Despite the high percentage of consumers who shop at supermarkets, other studies have shown that the supermarket share of total food spending continues to shrink as a result of channel blurring, where food items are becoming available in a wide range of outlets.

    The Deloitte survey also showed that money-saving options, such as coupons and store brands, for food shopping are widely used by consumers.

    "The survey results point out the difficulties and inherent contradictions in many of our current attempts to eat nutritional, safe foods," said Weiner. "Despite our stated interests, many of us often eat what is most convenient rather than what is most healthy. Food companies may want to factor into their planning the reality that consumers are pretty evenly split on the issue of eating healthily, which makes it difficult to manage product lines."

    "Total costs to our society from obesity are estimated to be as high as $300 billion. Food companies and food service providers can help America's obesity problem by heeding the concerns of the respondents in this survey," added Weiner. "Our survey responses offer insight to food industry executives looking to better understand current consumer food trends and concerns."

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