When it comes to staying healthy, consumers are all too aware of the significant impact that the foods we eat have on our overall health. But consumer knowledge isn’t limited to including the basic food groups—we’re also excluding the ingredients that concern us. In fact, nearly two-thirds of global respondents (64%) say they follow a diet that limits or prohibits consumption of some foods or ingredients. Taking a closer look, a majority of global respondents say that when it comes to ingredient trends, a back-to-basics mind-set, focused on simple ingredients and fewer artificial or processed foods, is a priority.
Artificial flavors (62%), preservatives (62%) and colors (61%) top the list of ingredients that consumers around the world try to avoid. In addition, more than half of those surveyed say they avoid antibiotics or hormones (59%), genetically modified organisms (GMOs, 54%) and artificial sweeteners (53%). Consumers aren’t just concerned about the ingredients in foods; they’re also concerned about food packaging. More than half of global respondents (55%) say they avoid food products contained in a package made with BPA (Bisphenol A), a chemical found in hard plastics and the coatings of food packages and drink cans.
While consumers around the globe widely cite that they avoid artificial or processed ingredients, sentiment varies slightly by region. Artificial flavors, colors and preservatives appear to be less bothersome in Latin and North America than globally, while the percentage in these regions who say they avoid sodium (49% and 47%, respectively) and sugar (39% each) exceeds the global average (41% and 34%, respectively). North American respondents are also more likely to say they avoid monosodium glutamate (MSG; 55% versus 49% globally). In fact, this ingredient has the highest level of stated avoidance in the region. Latin American respondents exceed the global average for avoiding saturated fat (53% versus 42%) and carbohydrates (30% versus 25%). European respondents are more likely than the global average to say they avoid foods that contain antibiotics (65% versus 59%) and genetically modified organisms (59% versus 54%), while Africa/Middle East respondents exceed the global average for saying they avoid gluten (32% versus 26%), carbohydrates (30% versus 25%) and unsaturated fats (25% versus 18%).
“Even within markets, health and wellness is not a one-size-fits all approach,” said Andrew Mandzy, Director of Strategic Health and Wellness Insights, Nielsen. “Therefore, a focused approach is needed, with retailers and manufacturers identifying high-potential segments and the drivers of engagement for these consumers and then tailoring their messages and products accordingly."
Why are respondents avoiding these ingredients? Primarily because of their perceived impact on health, rather than because of an actual medical condition. Among those who say they avoid specific ingredients, roughly eight in 10 global respondents say they do so because they believe these ingredients are harmful to their own or their family's health. The percentages who give this reason are fairly steady across categories: artificial colors (84%), flavors (84%), preservatives (84%) or sweeteners (78%); BPA (82%); GMOs (81%); antibiotics (81%); and MSG (79%).
Respondents say they’re looking for simpler options and avoiding artificial ingredients and undesirable additives, but are actual purchases consistent with what respondents say?
Nielsen retail sales data from Germany and the U.S. suggests that consumers are indeed backing up their sentiments with their wallets. In Germany, volume sales of organic products grew 10.6% over the 52 weeks ended April 3, 2016. In the U.S., volume sales of products with an organic claim on the package grew 13.1% over the 52 weeks ended July 30, 2016. In addition, products with claims that they are hormone- or antibiotic-free, GMO-free or natural grew 21.7%, 12.0% and 7.5%, respectively, over the same period. Claims that the product was made without artificial colors or flavors, high-fructose corn syrup or MSG also grew compared to the previous year, with volume sales of such products growing 5.4%, 3.2% and 2.3%, respectively, year over year.
Other findings include:
For more detail and insight, download Nielsen’s Global Ingredient and Dining-Out Trends Report. If you would like more detailed country-level data from this survey, it is available for sale in the Nielsen Store.
 Volume sales data are equivalized for Germany and is sourced from Nielsen’s Retail Measurement Services. That is, unit sales were converted to a common measure (kilograms) to control for differences in package size.
 Data for the U.S. is in terms of units and is sourced from Nielsen Wellness Track.
The Nielsen Global Health and Ingredient-Sentiment Survey was conducted March 1-23, 2016, and polled more than 30,000 online consumers in 63 countries throughout Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East/Africa and North America. The sample for both surveys includes internet users who agreed to participate in this survey and has quotas based on age and sex for each country. It is weighted to be representative of internet consumers by country. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. However, a probability sample of equivalent size would have a margin of error of ±0.6% at the global level. This Nielsen survey is based only on the behavior of respondents with online access. Internet penetration rates vary by country. Nielsen uses a minimum reporting standard of 60% internet penetration or an online population of 10 million for survey inclusion.