The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans strongly emphasizes the importance of choosing nutrient-dense foods and beverages, using the term throughout the report. But what do consumers know about nutrient density? And how, if at all, do they apply it to their own eating habits and purchasing decisions? In a new survey, the IFIC Foundation found that nearly two in three people have heard of nutrient density, but far fewer can explain what it means. In fact, 64% of survey respondents said that they had either heard the term before or at least thought they knew what it means, but slightly less than one in four said that they could explain nutrient density to someone else. In addition, 36% said that they had never heard of the term before. “These results indicate that although nutrient density is a term that many have heard, there is a gap in understanding,” said Joseph Clayton, CEO of the IFIC Foundation.

There is a split in consumer confidence in identifying nutrient-dense foods. Even though almost two in three people have heard of nutrient density, only 43% said that they were very or somewhat confident in their ability to identify them. A similar percentage of people in the survey (42%) said they were not very or not at all confident in their ability to identify nutrient-dense options.

Taste and price remain the top factors driving food purchasing decisions, while nutrient density ranks lower. This finding is consistent with IFIC’s 2019 Food and Health Survey results. In the present survey, when asked to rank attributes of foods in terms of their impact on purchasing behaviors, 58% of people ranked “taste” as their first or second option, followed by “price” (45%). “Nutrient density” came in at just 15%, surpassing only “environmental sustainability” (10%) in the rankings. There was also a divide in importance of healthfulness versus nutrient density: healthfulness was ranked as an impactful factor by 35% of survey takers, demonstrating that people do not necessarily equate nutrient density with healthfulness.

Budget-friendliness and ease of identification are top considerations for increasing nutrient-dense food intake. When survey respondents were asked what would help them eat more nutrient-dense foods, 33% said that they would increase consumption if they were more budget-friendly, followed by if they were easier to identify (29%). Improving taste (26%) and knowing more about nutrient density (23%) also ranked highly.

Report (pdf)

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