Americans have shifting views of what the terms "healthy" and "natural" mean in terms of food. 
WASHINGTON – Americans gave their views on the “natural” term in the International Food Information Council Foundation’s (IFIC) 2016 Food and Health Survey released Dec. 11. The Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to do the same.

The IFIC survey also revealed favorable views on protein, especially plant protein, and not-so-favorable views on artificial ingredients or preservatives.

When asked what the term natural means when applied to food, 29 percent said no preservatives or additives. Other top answers in the open-ended question were natural ingredients/straight from nature/whole foods at 19 percent, no artificial ingredients or flavors at 17 percent, no chemicals/hormones/pesticides/antibiotics at 14 percent, and no processing at 11 percent.

The FDA recently asked for public comment on such questions as whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural,” if so, how the agency should define “natural,” and how the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels. The comment period ended May 10.

Greenwald & Associates conducted the IFIC survey of 1,003 Americans aged 18 to 80 from March 17-24.

Thirty-seven per cent of Americans said they were trying to limit or avoid packaged foods. The top three reasons for doing so were artificial ingredients or preservatives; extra sugar, fat and salt; and a belief that packaged foods are not healthy. Forty-seven per cent said they look at the ingredient lists on foods or beverage packages when deciding what to purchase, which was up from 40 percent in 2015.

When asked how they defined a healthy food, 35 percent said does not contain (or has low levels of) certain components (fat, sugar, calories, sodium, etc.). Coming in second and third, respectively, were good for you (18 percent) and contains certain foods/components (17 percent).

The FDA earlier this month said it plans to reevaluate regulations concerning nutrient content claims, including the term ‘healthy.’ The FDA plans to solicit public comment.

Aided vs. unaided

In the IFIC survey, differences were found in aided questions versus unaided questions. In aided questions, participants were given a list of items to choose as answers. Unaided questions were open-ended and participants were not given a list.

When asked how they defined a healthy eating style in an aided question, 51 percent listed the right mix of different foods among their top three choices. Another 41 percent listed limited or no artificial ingredients or preservatives among their top three choices, and 37 percent said natural foods. When people responded to unaided questions the percentages were 21 percent for the right mix of different foods, 2 percent for limited or no artificial ingredients or preservatives, and 3 percent for natural foods.

The trend held true for non-bioengineered/ non-GMO foods. When asked to define a healthy eating style in an aided question, 16 percent listed non-GMO among their top three choices, but the percentage was less than 1 percent in the unaided question.

When asked their overall impression of using biotechnology to produce food, 26 percent said they had neither a favorable nor unfavorable view, 25 percent said they did not know enough about it to form an opinion, 16 percent said somewhat favorable, 14 percent said not very favorable, 13 percent said not at all favorable and 6 percent said very favorable.

More protein, please

Protein stood out in this year’s survey as 64 percent of Americans reported they were trying to consume more of the nutrient, up from 54 percent last year. Protein replaced fiber (60 percent this year) and whole grains (59 percent this year) as the top item consumers were trying to consume more of. Women and people with higher incomes were more likely to say they were trying to consume more protein.  In keeping with the natural trend, the IFIC survey for the first time included natural flavors (41 percent) and natural colors (31 percent) in this question.

Within the protein category, 12 percent said they considered animal protein more healthful this year than they did last year, and 15 percent said they considered it less healthful. For protein from plant sources, 21 percent said they considered it more healthful this year than they did last year, and 8 percent said they considered it less healthful.

The media were a top source that caused a less healthful view of enriched grains, saturated fat, added sugars and low-calorie sweeteners, according to the IFIC survey. Media headlines also led to people having a more healthful opinion of whole grains, protein from plant sources and natural sugars.

Americans could have more knowledge of vitamins. While 83 percent said they viewed vitamin C as healthy, only 21 percent said they viewed ascorbic acid (another name for vitamin C) as healthy.

The number of Americans who said their food and beverage purchasing decisions were impacted by sustainability increased to 41 percent in 2016 from 35 percent in 2015. Only 38 percent said they would be willing to pay more for food produced sustainably, however.

Seventy-three per cent said they think it is important that food products be made in a sustainable way. Within that 73 percent, 44 percent considered conserving natural habitat as an important aspect of sustainability, which was followed by reducing the amount of pesticides used to produce food (43 percent) and ensuring an affordable food supply (37 percent).

Read more about the IFIC survey