Even before COVID upended the way we think about everything, including food, the demand for transparency in how we make our food-related decisions was surging.

Where exactly does my food come from? Are the producers I’ve come to trust really doing all they can to ensure that the environment, the welfare of workers or other concerns that are important to me are also important to them?

The pandemic added jet fuel to all of that. In 2018, Arlington, Va.-based FMI – The Food Industry Association issued a report called The Transparency Imperative, which shone a spotlight on all of the many transparency-related trends in food retail.

That was less than four years ago, but so much has changed, FMI and NielsenIQ are revisiting the subject with a new comprehensive report, Transparency in an Evolving Omnichannel World.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a surge in online grocery shopping and a growing consumer embrace of health and well-being and environmental sustainability solutions,” according to the report. “It’s not surprising that consumers are gradually evolving their perspectives. They still feel very strongly about the need for retailers and manufacturers to relay transparency, but they are gradually expanding their areas of focus.”

Among the report’s mainly highlights is the finding that nearly two-thirds of consumers would switch from a brand they usually buy to one that provides more in-depth product information beyond just nutrition facts.

The report revealed continued high demand among consumers for transparency from food retailers and manufacturers, particularly in a more omnichannel marketplace. 

“The data from this report strongly reinforce the old adage that honesty is the best policy,” said Steve Markenson, director of research and insights for FMI. “Consumers want to know where their food comes from and how it gets made and that has held true even as the pandemic has changed grocery shopping habits. Whether online or in store, shoppers prefer brands that tell the whole story about their products.”

When it comes to transparency, ingredient and nutrition information remain top of mind for an increasing number of health-conscious consumers. For example, some 89% say general nutrition facts about a product are at least somewhat important in deciding which products to buy when grocery shopping — while 66% find this important or extremely important. 

Beyond nutrition facts, the majority (80%) of shoppers cited other transparency indicators of importance to include allergen information, certifications and claims, and values-based information such as animal welfare, fair trade and labor practices.

"Transparency trends continue to evolve as omnichannel gains importance," said Sherry Frey, vice president of total wellness with NielsenIQ. "As consumer demand great transparency, brands have an opportunity to educate consumers, communicate sustainability and health credentials and win consumer loyalty."


The online surge

In 2018, just over one-fourth of shoppers (26%) purchased groceries online in the past 30 days. According to the latest findings, that number has now ballooned to 55%, making the online marketplace an ever more critical juncture for consumers to find their preferred brands and discover new ones. 

For example, 47% said discovery of new products – including information about sourcing and manufacturing processes – is easier online, compared to 23% saying harder and 30% saying about the same. 

When it comes to online shopping and transparency shoppers say they want faster delivery (42%), easier to use websites (37%), more and better product information (30%), retention of order history (29%), more accurate search functionality (28%) and product recommendations based on preferences (23%).

Ingredients and nutrition information are still the most important considerations for consumers when it comes to transparency, but emerging factors that are becoming more important include diets that products comply with, sustainability practices, a widening array of allergen information and company social responsibility programs.

In addition, transparency trends have evolved as omnichannel shopping takes on greater importance. The majority of online grocery shoppers (64%) began buying food online only in the past 18 months, and 43% cite the pandemic specifically as a reason.

“Given that context, it’s easy to see how shoppers are looking at transparency through new lenses,” according to the report. “The food industry has a lot to learn from the evolving perspectives of shoppers on transparency, omnichannel shopping behaviors, health and wellbeing and other topics.”

About three quarters of shoppers surveyed by FMI and Nielsen said that transparency from brands and manufacturers is extremely important or important. Areas of greatest interest for finding additional product information online include ingredient definitions and in-depth nutritional information.

However, a number of secondary factors are more important to consumers. These include diets the product complies with, a company’s sustainability practices, additional certifications the products qualify for and a company’s social responsibility programs.

In fact, more than half (51%) of consumers are now interested in at least one of the secondary factors, versus 44% in the comparable 2018 research.


COVID’s impact

Many consumer behaviors have been transformed as a result of the pandemic, according to the report. A case in point involves online shopping behaviors. In 2018, the research just over one-fourth of shoppers (26%) purchased groceries online in the past 30 days. That has now advanced to more than one-half of grocery shoppers (55%).

The pandemic also drove many consumers to eat healthier. In fact, 48% of consumers say that moving forward they expect to eat healthier.

About nine in ten say that general nutrition facts about a product are at least somewhat important in deciding which products to buy when grocery shopping, while 66% find this important or extremely important. Forty-five percent say showing in-depth nutritional information is an indication of transparency.

COVID has also accelerated many micro-trends within the overall trend of more Americans buying groceries online.

Online shopping, for instance, now outperforms instore when it comes to discovery of new products and learning more about a product’s story — including information about sourcing and manufacturing processes.

Forty-seven percent of those surveyed by FMI and Nielsen said that discovery of new products is easier online, compared to 23% saying it’s harder and 30% saying it’s about the same.