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The evolution of "healthy"

How consumers define healthy eating has changed, as personalized approaches to wellness become the norm

The needs and desires that drive Canadians’ food and beverage choices continue to evolve and expand. This shouldn’t be surprising, given the constant change surrounding us in all aspects of life.

Macro factors such as shifting demography, re-defining convenience, snacking and mini-mealing, individualism and customization, the quest for new tastes and experiences, and information and technology advances, are all influencing consumers’ choices.

Canadians’ pre-emptive approach to health and wellness, however, has precipitated considerable—some would say disruptive—change across a broad spectrum of the food and beverage industry.

Given consumers’ prioritization of healthy eating, food and beverage businesses will need to continue to modernize and update their understanding of healthy eating to stay relevant and connected with their customers.

But what is healthy eating in 2019? The trend towards “health and wellness,” at least at a 20,000-foot level, remains a rather nebulous term. Eating well often means different things to different individuals and is based on their own personal needs and conditions. The view of what’s good for us has evolved and expanded, from focusing solely on nutrient intake to evaluating our choices more holistically, based on a food’s literal and symbolic freshness and goodness.

Today, health is defined by an intersection of macro needs such as nutrient intake, metabolic benefits and social needs, all in various forms and combinations. I call it “stacking benefits.” They want it all, and are often unwilling to make compromises.

The wellness trend—fuelled by consumers’ insatiable desire for knowledge, an ever-expanding array of health-focused food and beverage products, and evolving purchase channels—is also impacting consumer engagement. Ipsos five research reveals the following:

• More than 80% of adult consumers report they always, regularly or sometimes seek product information, revealing a new level of engagement not seen even five years ago.

• Over half of those same consumers say their primary sources for seeking information are family, friends, colleagues or selected social communities when determining what to eat, where to buy food or how to prepare it. They are opting to gather information via trusted sources rather than relying on more traditional or institutional sources they may have relied on in the past.

• The majority of consumers report taking a break weekly from their own eating repertoire to do the following: “expand my repertoire of choices;” “get more taste variety and experience;” “include more premium and high-quality items;” and “expand healthy options.”

The increasing level of consumer engagement has opened up a variety of micro spaces that provide unique opportunities for manufacturers, retailers and foodservice operators to target their offers to specific needs. New niche spaces include: nutrient intake expansion (more good, less bad, more protein, less sugar and carbohydrates); fresh focus (local, organic, seasonal); premium options (high quality, real and less processed); ingredient prioritization (minimum of real food ingredients, transparency and noted benefits); personal performance needs (satiety, energy, mental focus, sleep); condition management (diet restrictions, sensitivities and conditions); and conscious consumerism (food lifecycle awareness).

The shift in the type of proteins consumers are eating, for instance, exemplifies how they’re balancing emerging macro and micro needs to meet their healthy eating ambitions. While meats are still Canadians’ main source of protein, augmented by premium cuts and ethically-farmed options, plant-based protein consumption rates have continued to rise over the past three years. Almost half of consumers (45%) indicate they would choose a plant-based substitute over a meat option, motivated by their desire to cut back on their weekly meat intake for health-related reasons.

Given that health and wellness is such a priority for consumers today, and for the foreseeable future, approaching your customers with contemporary solutions that demonstrate an elevated understanding of individual wellness needs is the new “greens fee” for brands that would like to position themselves as leaders—and winners—in the current healthy eating arena.

This column appeared in Canadian Grocer's May issue.

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