How America Will Eat


There’s room to grow for companies trying to win with healthy foods in America. The billions in sales growth from fresh foods (+$4.6 billion), organics (+$925 million) and foods that support plant-based diets (+982 million) (1) can often be mistaken as signs of health-food saturation. But the reality is, 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% of) Americans have purchased a low-fat food or beverage item this year, but households only do so about twice a month. Similarly, U.S. homes are only buying organic, sugar-free and high-protein foods about once a month in each case (2).

Statistically speaking, a dark cloud looms over eating patterns in America. In 2018, one in five Americans identified as obese (3), and one in nine homes lacked access to enough food at some point in the year (4). Perpetuating these problems, nearly one in four (23%) admit to never or rarely exercising (5). Yet, Americans have bright intentions for the future, and this presents manufacturers and retailers with a golden opportunity to capitalize on this optimism by removing the barriers that separate what people want to eat and drink with what they actually consume.

healthy intentions can guide action

Two-thirds of Americans say their eating habits have changed over the last five years. That’s a lot of shifting behaviors that could be monetized. But this change in intention is only valuable if manufacturers and retailers can fulfill 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 (6). 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. 

Our 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 2-3X more likely than the oldest generations to change their eating habits in order to manage mental health, finances and time.

millennial eating is influenced by practial needs

But translating these ideals into products on the shelf is a tall order to fill. And so, we center 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:

To answer the equation, we’ve broken down the behaviors 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.” (7)

saving time in cpg

Many companies have already tapped into the potential of value-added beverages. Sales of beverages infused with marijuana, for example, have grown nearly 50% since 2018 (8). 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% in the last year (9). 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.

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.

Reduce stress with CPG

Mental illness is a prolific health concern in America, as is the related struggle to get sufficient and restful sleep. The CDC reports that an estimated 50% 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 prioritize mental health just as much as they do physical health in encouraging dietary changes in America.


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 capitalize 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 6-12X the price per gram of chicken, pork and turkey (2 cents per gram, respectively) (10). For the 55% of Americans who prioritize high-protein content when deciding what to buy (11), 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 be swayed by re-education on the protein content actually 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. 

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 (33%) say they will prioritize price when it comes to what they consume over the next five years (12). Additionally, 75% of Americans believe it’s important to always get the best price on a product (13). This isn’t “new” news, but it’s interesting to see where consumers are and are not willing to splurge, as well as gain insight into the product details that ground these preferences.


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 sizable 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 specialized products that tout better-for-you health aspects. In the U.S., private-label CPG sales have soared to nearly $146 billion in the latest year, and sales are growing at 2X the rate of name brands (14). How are they maintaining these trends? To consumers, the value-driven reputation of store brands remains strong, as 67% of Americans agree that store brands are usually an extremely good value for the money (15). 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 colors and flavors 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.

Looking specifically at the food and beverage space, the pace of growth among store brands has been slower this year. While store-brand food and beverage sales were up nearly 5% in 2018, they hover at just 3% above sales of a year ago, which is closer to branded sales growth of 2% (16). 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% of Americans (17). When we look at the top diet preferences across the nation, lowering sugar and adhering to diabetic diets are among the top 10 (18). 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 behavior that moderates intake to healthy portions that both consumers and companies can benefit from.

Fewer people buy sugar

For many consumers, monitoring their sugar intake starts at the source—purchases of pure sugar. Compared with a year ago, the number of households buying sugar in America has dropped by 2 percentage points. 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% less than the American norm on sugar and sweeteners per year. And when compared with last year, these households have made 33% fewer overall trips to buy the category. And in just one year, we’ve seen a 2%-4% drop in annual spending on sugar and sweeteners by Black, White and Hispanic homes. But just because the buyer pool of sugar itself is turning sour, it doesn’t mean that sales of sugar-rich foods are failing.

Success with sugar

In many cases, categories commonly known for their high sugar content are 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 minimize 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 U.S. locations, any future government mandates around sugar could hit American CPG 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 optimizing your offerings with portion-controlled pack sizes for sweets. We know consumers like to indulge in sugary products, so improving the way Americans do so will help the both consumer and the company. 

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.

Help Americans Treat

Opportunities can be maximized in both the short- and in the long-term. For example, today’s short-term opportunities could include efforts to boost the growth of high-performing confections such as chewy candies and milk chocolate, while long-term efforts should look beyond what’s currently succeeding. Candy is most often sold in a 5 oz pack size. This is largely considered above the recommended serving size, which often ranges between 1-2 oz. 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 that will boost and not break these goals that will win by bridging the gap to healthier eating in America.

Click here to read the original article. This post first appeared on Nielsen Dot Com.


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