The International Food Information Council (IFIC) released its 2021 Food & Health Survey last week (a survey of 1,014 American adults ages 18-80 and conducted March 23-31, 2021), and the results showed just how much the COVID-19 pandemic affected people’s eating and purchasing habits, as well as their general understanding and feelings surrounding food and overall health. The results also indicated consumers may—finally—be heading back toward whatever “normal” is for them as COVID-19 closures and restrictions continue to be rolled back.
“After more than a year of tremendous upheaval caused by a historic pandemic, Americans are craving stability and a return to normalcy when it comes to their food decisions,” said Joseph Clayton, CEO of IFIC, in a press release. “The 2021 Food & Health Survey reflects those desires, but it also provides evidence of trends from during and before the pandemic that are proving to be more durable. This year’s survey also offers interesting new insights into consumers’ feelings about their communities, as well as their obligations to the environment.”
Compared to the 2020 survey, results showed consumers are, slowly but surely, returning to a sense of normalcy. The number of Americans indicating a change in their eating habits due to the pandemic dropped from 85% in 2020 to 72% in 2021. Additionally, while 60% of Americans said they were cooking at home more because of the pandemic in 2020, that figure dropped to just 47% this year as restaurants and other foodservice locations relax restrictions and consumers feel more comfortable eating out. Other behaviors that saw 2020 COVID-related increases and subsequent 2021 falls include: snacking more (32% in 2020; 18% in 2021), washing fresh produce more (30% to 22%) and eating premade pantry or freezer meals (19% to 11%).
Not all COVID-related behaviors are seeing corrections in 2021, however. From 2019 to 2020, the percentage of Americans buying food online at least once per month unsurprisingly jumped from 27% to 33%; however, rather than fall in 2021, it continued to climb, reaching 42%.
The 2021 survey also examined the topic of food insecurity and disparities within the food system, and the results were eye-opening. For example, 15% of Americans indicated they purchase less-healthy options at grocery stores specifically because healthier options are too expensive. Similar percentages claimed they often worried about their food running out before they had the money to purchase more (14%) or delayed or skipped food purchasing altogether to pay other bills, such as rent. This trend was especially troubling for African Americans; while just 12% of African American respondents in the 2018 survey indicated they “often purchased less food overall because of money concerns,” that number nearly doubled to 22% this year. Additionally, compared to the 15% of overall Americans who bought less healthy foods for financial reasons, 25% of African American respondents indicated the same.
While personal health was certainly the trend of 2020, community health—whether within one’s neighborhood or the planet at large—seems to be a defining theme for 2021. More than 4 in 10 Americans believe their individual choices about food and beverage purchases have a moderate or significant impact on the environment, and more than half believe better education on the subject would lead to greater influence on purchasing decisions. Nearly 60% say it is at least somewhat important that “the food products they buy and consume be produced in ways that are committed to the fair and equitable treatment of workers such as farm hands, factory workers, retail workers and foodservice staff.”
Food & Beverage Insider insights
The million-dollar question within the food and beverage industry in 2021 is, “What effects of COVID were temporary, and which are here to stay?” While the answer to the question is likely still many years of hindsight away, the 2021 IFIC Food & Health Survey certainly gives industry an idea of what consumers are sticking with and what they can’t wait to give up.
The results of the 2021 survey make it clear that online ordering of food—from ready-to-eat (RTE) meals at restaurants to ready-to-cook meal kits and, increasingly, regular groceries—is here to stay. Even with Americans returning to grocery stores, the ease and convenience of online ordering is too good to give up for many consumers. On the other hand, at least in the short-term, home cooking occasions will likely continue to fall as Americans head back to restaurants in droves.
Additionally, concerns regarding the sustainability of the food trade are not going away any time soon. Today’s consumers, even before COVID, were ready to spend more for the sake of the planet, whether it mean better packaging, recycled products or improved conditions for farmers and other food workers. This is especially true of Millennial consumers, of which 61% said it is very or somewhat important to them that the foods they buy or eat are produced in ways that are “committed to the fair an equitable treatment of food workers” and 58% said the same for environmentally sustainable practices. With Millennials making up the largest generation cohort in the U.S., and having families of their own to purchase for, appealing to this group is of paramount importance for the success of any brand or product.
Finally—and perhaps most importantly—the 2021 survey highlighted that not every consumer’s experience is equal; where one lives and the color of one’s skin can and will impact consumers in ways beyond their control. It is, and will continue to be, important for brands, retailers and anyone else involved in the food system to address this inequality and work to close the gap. Additionally, it will be important for ingredient suppliers, formulators, brands and retailers to work together to ensure healthy, better-for-you food isn’t only an option for the wealthy; healthy food must be made accessible and affordable for all.