WASHINGTON — As many as 85% of Americans made changes in the food they eat or how they prepare food because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, according to the International Food Information Council’s (IFIC) 2020 Food and Health Survey.

The biggest change was that 60% of consumers reported cooking at home more. One-in-three said they are snacking more, and a quarter said they are thinking about food more than usual. Around 20% reported eating healthier than usual, eating more than usual and eating more pre-made meals from their pantry or freezer.

Younger consumers’ habits were the most impacted by the outbreak, IFIC found. More than 40% of consumers under the age of 35 reported snacking more than normal, compared to 26% of consumers over the age of 50. Younger consumers also were more likely to report eating both more and less healthy foods during the pandemic.

“Whether these particular impacts of the pandemic are only temporary remains to be seen,” said Joseph Clayton, president and chief executive officer of IFIC. “But it’s hard to think of another recent event that has had such far-reaching effects, and in such a short period, on how we purchase, prepare and consume foods and beverages.”

Changes to eating and food preparation due to COVID-19 chart

The pandemic also was reflected in changes to the way Americans view food safety, with food handling and preparation related to coronavirus risk topping the list of concerns. Top concerns from last year, including foodborne illness, chemicals in food, carcinogens in food and pesticide residues, all declined.

Where food is purchased influenced how concerned respondents were about safety, with nearly half reporting concerns about food prepared outside of the home. More than 40% said they were concerned about food safety when shopping for groceries online.

 A decade of trend tracking

The survey also revealed significant trends in food attitudes and behaviors since 2010. Factors with the greatest influence on food-purchasing decisions have remained stable, with taste consistently ranking the highest, followed by price, healthfulness and convenience.

The impact of environmental sustainability has steadily risen, with 39% of consumers saying it impacts their decisions in 2020. More than 40% said it is important that a food manufacturer “has a commitment” to sustainability, and 40% said the same about environmentally conscious farming practices.

Attitudes toward health also have changed, with more than half of consumers saying health matters more than in 2010. Aging may play a role, IFIC said, with 63% of Americans ages 50 and up indicating healthfulness has more of an impact now, compared to 46% of those under 50.

Half of respondents indicated that whether they consider a product to be processed impacts their purchasing decisions, a factor that has gained traction over the last decade. 

Purchase drivers over time chart

The increased focus on healthfulness may be linked to a growing number of people who said they’re following a specific diet. In 2020, 43% of consumers reported following a specific diet or eating pattern during the last year, up from 38% in 2019 and 36% in 2018. Intermittent fasting was the most popular (10%), followed by clean eating (9%), ketogenic or high fat (8%). Losing weight remained the top motivator for new diets (47%), followed by feeling better (40%).

More Americans embraced plant-based meat and dairy alternatives in the past year, according to the survey. Nearly 30% of consumers said they ate more protein from plant sources, and 24% said they ate more plant-based dairy. Just under 20% reported eating more plant-based meat alternatives. Those who follow a specific diet were more likely to eat more plant-based foods, with 41% of dieters increasing their consumption of protein from plants, compared to 18% of non-dieters.

Both dieters and non-dieters perceived plant-based foods as healthier, with more than 40% saying a product labeled as “plant-based” was healthier than other products, even if they had the same Nutrition Facts Label.

The perceived healthfulness of animal protein increased, too, with more than 40% of consumers saying animal protein is healthy.

Increased awareness of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans may be another result of the increased emphasis on healthfulness. More than 40% of consumers said they are familiar with the guidelines, up 20% from 2010.