Most consumers go online to find answers to questions about health and diet. But the vast array of messages in the digital age leaves them confused about what and who to trust, a new study has revealed.
In a survey of 2,000 consumers across markets in Europe, North America and Australia, New Nutrition Business discovered 79% of consumers find messages surrounding health, food and nutrition “confusing”.
Changing dietary advice has left people unsure about which foods are healthy. For example, consumers polled in the UK revealed they are “most confused” about the role of dairy, eggs and butter as part of a healthy diet.
“Consumers in the UK and worldwide are confused about whether certain foods are healthy or not. Online sources are their go-to place for dietary information, where they often find contradictory advice,” observed Joana Maricato, research manager at New Nutrition Business.
The proliferation of online sources of information, such as blogs or social media outlets, has added to uncertainty. New Nutrition found 34% of UK consumers and a 46% of Spanish consumers consult blogs and websites over health issues.
This has undermined trust in traditional sources of information, including health professionals and nutritionists. Indeed, most consumers said they would look online for dietary advice rather than consulting a professional.
"Consumers perceive mixed messages and changes to advice, motivating them to lose their trust in ‘experts’ and even health entities. Driven by a lack of trust and conflicting information everyone starts doing their own research and making their own decisions about their diet and lifestyle - driving the increasing fragmentation of beliefs around diet and health,” Maricato told FoodNavigator.
One message that has come through loud and clear is that sugar is unhealthy.
In the UK, 86% of consumers said they believe sugar is bad for their health and 89% said they would like to reduce the amount of sugar they eat every day.
The idea that sugar is an enemy of health has become so strong that some consumers are avoiding foods that they see as sources of “hidden sugars” or even relatively low levels of naturally present sugars. Fruit juices, for example, were described as “high in sugar” by 46% of UK participants.
But even here consumer understandings are at odds with nutritional science. In total, 50% of consumers surveyed said brown sugar is “healthier” than white sugar.
Fragmentation of behaviour
The diverse answers consumers are finding as they research health and nutrition is resulting in a fragmentation of attitudes and lifestyle choices, Maricato believes.
This makes it harder for food brands to make their voice heard and ensure their message will resonate. “It has become increasingly difficult to create mass brands in the way we understood them in the past. The future is a series of premium-priced niches – some of which will become big niches."
Becoming a trusted go-to source of information represents an opportunity for the food industry to make its voice heard in the chatter. However, Maricato doesn’t think any single food company can go it alone.
"The power and the diversity of information sources available to people online is much greater than any one food company can compete with and hope to be heard. There may be scope for industry-wide efforts, such as the UK Dairy Board's digital campaign to remind people of the benefits of dairy,” the analyst suggested
Maricato added that it is “more important” to make sure that products connect with hey consumer trends and beliefs.
“In the mass of message that people are bombarded with, it is difficult to stand out. The most successful brands are those that connect to people's beliefs about naturalness, using ingredients that people already have a positive view about and associate with health."