LAS VEGAS — Consumer perception of personal health and the health of the environment are intertwined, said Julie Johnson, general manager of the market research company HealthFocus International, St. Petersburg, Fla.
“If you're in your 40s you will remember when sustainability revolved around external factors like recycling,” she said during a Nov. 2 presentation at the SupplySide West trade show. “It has now shifted to a more integrated view of personal health.
“People used to make choices separately about the environment and separately about their health. Now that connection is definite, and they connect what they are eating with those choices at the shelf.”
Citing data from a HealthFocus study of 12,000 consumers around the world and, specifically, 1,000 in North America, Johnson said 74% of consumers in North America say the health of the environment is “extremely important” or “important” to their overall health, outranking diet and exercise.
“When you think about health, it has shifted over the years,” she said. “Diet and exercise used to be what personal health meant. Now it’s much bigger than that with sustainability a bigger part of that conversation.”
The top three environmental concerns consumers have are plastic waste — a top issue for a long time, Johnson said — air, water and soil pollution, and chemicals, toxins or heavy metals in the food supply.
Johnson noted the concern about chemicals, toxins and heavy metals directly connects a consumer’s environmental concerns with what they are consuming.
Rounding out the top five environmental concerns are climate change at No. 4 and food waste at No. 5.
“When we talk about food waste, 58% are highly concerned,” Johnson said. “But if you decide to develop a product around it you will see only 40% are interested in a low or zero waste food product.”
She added that consumers can address food waste without the need for an external product.
“What that says is developing a product that reduces food waste will not be the end all be all,” she said.
HealthFocus’ research also shows relatively few people will pay more for a product with a sustainable benefit.
“But if you think about the personal and environmental health connection intertwined, and if a sustainable product is a healthier product, consumers are much more willing to pay more for it,” Johnson said. “Once you make that connection for consumers that a sustainable product is better-for-you, then they will have a different payment point.”
Sustainable attributes consumers may be interested in range from on-farm practices to how a product is produced and processed, to on-shelf attributes. Among consumers, the “most sustainably proactive groups” are people in their 30s and households with children, Johnson said.
The HealthFocus research also showed some consumers are willing to sacrifice a product’s clean label designation if ingredients in the formulation that they may not be familiar with have a sustainable benefit.
“I wasn't terribly surprised that more than half said they would make an exception,” Johnson said. “Especially among younger consumers and consumers with children.”
While nutrition and health and wellness remain top priorities regarding what consumers want to hear about from food and beverage brands, environmental issues are having a growing impact on food and beverage selection, according to HealthFocus.
“More and more consumers are taking that into account,” Johnson said. “Younger consumers are more discerning in their choices. They are willing to change what they buy if a product does not meet their environmental standards.”
The research showed sourcing is important to all age groups, with more than half wanting to know where their food is produced. As far as what influences consumers to buy a new brand, Johnson said the environmentally friendly claims that are most influential are transparency, food waste reduction and eco-friendly packaging.
“Those are the top three and I tied them all together, because these are things consumers can see as tangible,” she said. “They connect them directly to a product or company.
“A little bit lower we have environmental health, soil health and coming from a climate-friendly company. These are important to people, but they are results they can't immediately see. They don't know for sure if a company is doing what they say they are doing.”