The Obesity Epidemic and Snacking: Aligning Intentions with Actions

As a company that manufacture’s vitamin and mineral premixes, the health of the average American is foremost on our minds. What are the vitamins and minerals that American’s need the most? Are there deficiencies we should be aware of? In short, are we producing the right, high quality products that Americans depend upon day in and day out?

As a country, it is hard to ignore the health epidemic that is slowly but surely consuming our nation: obesity. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) program, the prevalence of obesity has gone from 23% in 1988 to 68% of the population being categorized as overweight or obese in 2008. That comes out to a staggering 45% increase in just twenty years (Check out the CDC graphic here).

What makes the epidemic so deadly, according to Mintel, is that being overweight has become the new norm. While the NHANES study found that 68% of the American population was overweight and obese, a survey conducted by Mintel around that same time found that 52% described themselves as normal weight, with only 44% describing themselves as overweight. A complementary study conducted by the Columbia University Medical Center had similar findings, according to an article in USA Today. In the study, 66% of mothers were found to be overweight or obese, however, only 18% of obese women and 57.5% of overweight women were able to accurately estimate their weight when looking at figure silhouettes.

And unfortunately it is not just adults. According to the NHANES study, 17% of children between the ages of 2-19 are obese, and according to the USA Today article, 47.5% of moms of overweight or obese children “thought their kids were at a healthy weight”. This is a very serious issue, because according to the New England Journal of Medicine, being obese at a young age can result in “life-threatening consequences in the future”.

The reason I bring this up is not to be a Debbie Downer, but to demonstrate a point. Although it is a proven fact that more people are overweight and obese today then they were in the past, if they do not recognize that they are overweight, and that their current diet is unhealthy, they will not feel the need to make changes. The challenge for food marketers is to align consumer intentions with actions. According to Mintel, one of the greatest opportunities in the industry is to develop snacks that foster alignment between wanting to be healthy and eating healthy, and to communicate the health benefits of their snacks. However in doing so, the health claims must be common sense associative (ex. Calcium in milk) and the snacks must actually taste good. Lets be honest, no one is going to give up their low-fat baked potato chips for something that tastes like cardboard.

The key to creating alignment between consumer perceptions and purchasing habits is information. Educating the population about basic nutrition and healthy eating habits will not only help to improve the health of the general population overall, but will help to nurture demand for healthy snacks as well, spurring innovation and sales in that market. Already we have seen some headway made. In response to childhood obesity statistics, media, government and medical communities have begun to focus on healthy snack innovation targeting kids.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, the Food Trade Commission (FTC) found that foods being marketed to children in 2011 contained less sugar and more whole grains then they had in 2006. FTC Chairman Jon Leibowtiz was quoted saying, “ The encouraging news is that we’re seeing promising signs that food companies are reformulating their products and marketing more nutritious foods to kids, especially among companies participating in industry self-regulatory efforts. But there is still room for improvement”. While parents are responsible for the end purchasing decision, marketing is still a powerful tool when it comes to influencing children’s’ perceptions and creating habits. By educating children on the importance of a healthy diet and how tasty healthy foods are, food companies can hopefully expand the current dialogue to help inspire healthy habits in their young target audience.

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How Snacks Can Help or Hurt Your New Year’s Resolution

As we approach the New Year, many of us are thinking about our New Year’s resolutions. For many, this includes losing weight and developing healthier habits. In fact, if this year is anything like last year, according to a Wall Street Journal article, 42% of people list losing weight as one of their top resolutions. Unfortunately, losing weight also ranked as one of the top “unachieved resolutions” in the same study.

According to a 2008 study conducted by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey group, the type of snack you eat can greatly affect the success of your diet. The study found that although the number of snacks consumed by the average person per day has doubled in the past 30 years, the number of snacks consumed in a day did not differ significantly by weight across the surveyed population, suggesting that the type of snack heavily determines the success of a diet.

In 2011 Mintel conducted their own study, which found that the average person consumes 2.6 snacks a day, 78% of which were considered healthy. While the study had respondents self classify “healthy snack” (and as discussed in the last post that the definition of “healthy” is highly contextual and subjective), it does show that the importance of healthy snacking is getting through to consumers and many engage in strategic snacking to try and manage their weight. In their study, Mintel found that healthy snacking tendencies varied by age and gender. While women were overall more likely to report eating healthy snacks, healthy snacking was found to be lower among 18-34 year olds and families with young children.

Mintel found that families with small children tend to eat more snacks then average, roughly 2.7 snacks per day since children tend to have faster metabolism then adults. For families, the biggest hurdle to healthy snacking is finding a snack that is not only nutritious, comes in kid-friendly portions and is portable, but most importantly is something kids actually like/want to eat. As mentioned in the last post, many families with children will sacrifice the “health acceptance level” of a snack and settle for a marginally healthy snack, such as a whole-wheat cracker, in order to gain taste and portability.

Consumers who are between the ages of 18-34 were also found to consume the less healthy snacks, consuming 6% less healthy snacks then average consumer. According to Mintel, this is due in part to the cultural trend of “on the go snacking”, where quick snacks take the place of meals. This is especially troublesome for those wishing to lose weight, as skipping meals have been shown to slow metabolism and lead to binge snacking. Mintel found that higher snacking frequency is associated with higher total calorie intake, about 1.5 times as many calories as adults who do not snack.

So while healthy snaking can help you achieve your weight management goals, unhealthy snacking can spell the death of your diet. According to Alexander Chernev, an associated professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and author of the New Year resolution study, “When making our resolutions, we think ‘big picture’ and focus on the long-term. Then life takes over. When given the choice between the immediate gratification of indulging now and the future gratification of losing weight, people tend to by myopic and favor the short term”. Since on-the-go snacking trend remains strong, it is up to food companies to create products that not only fit into consumer’s busy lifestyles, but also are nutritious.

While the majority of snackers consume healthy snacks, consumers also desire an indulgent snack during the day. Mintel suggests that food companies create healthy snacks that include indulgent flavors, such a chocolate, so that consumers can treat themselves in a way that does not ruin their diet. In addition, food companies should look into creating more filling, meal-replacement options that are easy to grab-and-go that will help consumers feel full longer. This will help consumers resist the urge to binge snack, and hopefully enable them to attain their goals for the New Year.

Health Is In the Eye of the Eater

Now that the holiday season has come to an end, and all the holiday cakes, cookies and chocolates have been enjoyed, the season of cheer is over and the season of responsible eating has begun. Gone are those glorious days when the single oatmeal chocolate shot cookie you grabbed while running out the door can be considered a “reasonable” snack by virtue it being made of oatmeal and that you only grabbed one.

Looking back, its rather interesting how context can affect your view of a healthy snack. While there is that 9% who view cookies as a healthy snack all year round, unfortunately for the rest of us, we know that fresh fruit, vegetables and nuts are what constitute as healthy snacks. Not surprisingly, these three groups are part of the six groups highlighted by the USDA’s food pyramid. However, these are the items that also tend to be less portable then other snacks. While the majority know what constitutes as a healthy snack, portability is a major deciding factor which leads to “snack compromise”, or a lowering of the “health acceptance” bar, as seen in the oatmeal cookie situation.

According to Mintel, in addition to the three food groups listed above, the top fifteen snacks include yogurt, dried fruit, trail mix, cheese, popcorn, rice cakes, frozen yogurt, cereal, snack bars, fruit snacks, pretzels and crackers. While crackers and cereal are viewed as more processed, and thus less healthful then whole food snacks such as fruits and vegetables, their portability makes them more popular snacks then the healthier, whole food choices, especially when compared to other portable snack options such as chips.

This can be most clearly seen when it comes to parents purchasing snacks for kids. According to Mintel, parents tend to have a skewed perception of what constitutes as a healthy snack due to the fact that they are looking for a snack that is not only nutritious but is also something their kids will eat. As many parents can attest, animal crackers and graham crackers are popular snack choices for young kids, but are mostly considered healthy due to their preferred flavor profile, small serving size and portability, rather then their intrinsic health benefits. Sound familiar?

In the end, the perception of health is dependent on what each consumer views as important health benefits and how those benefits are weighed against portability. According to Mintel, companies should make snacks that are not only portable, but that include vitamins and minerals so that they can make legitimate nutritional health claims. In this way consumers can purchase snacks that not only have the benefits they want but also have the portability they need.

It’s a man thing…

Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, a lack of one. Although healthy snacking among women has risen in the past year, men between the ages of 18-34 persist in unhealthy snacking. Why? According to Mintel, it is because healthy snacks are just not “manly enough”, which is why men in that age group have been given the distinction of being “the greatest opportunity for industry players” by Mintel.

In Mintel’s 2011 Healthy Snacking Consumer study, men aged 18-34 were found to be eating more snacks than they did the previous year, and yet were less likely to make an effort to snack on foods that were healthy. Health benefits alone don’t seem to do it for men. According to Mintel, “a snack’s health position needs to be of less consequence than taste, image and trendiness in order for it to have a more masculine slant”. For men more so then women, taste really does matter when it comes to creating a successful snack.

The most successful snacks to date come from creating a lower-calorie version of an original snack or using ingredients that men already identify as “tasty”.  Men don’t want to sacrifice taste, but offer a healthier alternative that still tastes great and men (or anyone for that matter) will go for it. This trend can be seen predominantly in Men Health’s Magazine features on “Eat This, Not That”.  In cases such as these, men will take the healthier route but only because they know they will not have to sacrifice their taste buds. One current example is Dr. Pepper Ten, a 10-calorie soft drink that not only promises not to sacrifice taste, but also has the distinction of being one of the few products that is marketed to men exclusively through their “It’s Not for Women” campaign.

Another way to appeal to men is to use healthy ingredients that many already enjoy. Peanuts are a great example, I mean who doesn’t love snacking on peanuts while enjoying an ice-cold beer? Plus, peanuts are an excellent source of protein. One of my favorite examples is Nature Valley’s new peanut, almond and dark chocolate protein bars.  Peanuts and chocolate is a tried and true combination, and protein has the functional benefit of keeping you fuller longer.

However, taste was found to be almost equally as important as a trendy image. One way to achieve this is through athlete endorsement, which has been successfully used by Gatorade for years. Mintel also suggests positioning the brand or product as an “extreme” that focuses on men’s “masculinity and ego”. This has been done successfully across a number of products and brands, including the pre mentioned Dr. Pepper Ten and Old Spice Body Wash. Humor, especially violent humor, is also a great way to appeal to men. The Snickers “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign is a great example for snacks packed with protein. By focusing on the humorous but debilitating effect of hunger, protein snacks can position themselves as a great tasting “fix” while their health benefits remain subconsciously in the background.

Healthy Snacks Are Boring Snacks

It is that time again, that hour right before lunch or midway through the afternoon, when you feel your stomach rumble. You get up, stretch, maybe grab another cup of coffee, but what you really want is something to eat, something quick to tide you over until your next meal. What you want is a snack.

If this sounds familiar you are not alone. Mintel reported in a recent survey that about two thirds of the population snack between meals. Of those Snackers, Mintel found that only 27% chow down on healthy foods. This is at direct odds with the National Research Center’s 2010 Consumer Report that stated that 90% of the population said they had a healthy diet. In their report, Mintel hypothesized that this discrepancy is due to the fact that the perception of what constitutes, as a healthy snack is highly subjective. Believe or not 9% of the population believes that cookies and potato chips count as healthy snacks. If only life was that simple.

For the rest of us, its not that we don’t know what a healthy snack is, it is that healthy snacking is just plain boring. Lets face it; the jelly donut from your favorite bakery is going to beat the bag of carrots you brought from home every time. If nothing else, the uptick in adult and childhood obesity shows that food companies need to change how they design and market healthy snacks from something we should eat to something that we want to eat.

While not selling snacks, Healthy Choice’s new ad campaign captures this idea perfectly. Last week the New York Times published an article that quoted Healthy Choice’s brand director, Jenn Freeman, explaining that they decided to focus on dieter’s pain because “consumers are telling us over and over again that they’re tired of dieting, tired of deprivation, tired of being irritable”.  It is the idea of deprivation that is key. Instead of feeling forced to eat something “healthy”, i.e. juice or drum sticks, people want to be able to have something that is as luxurious as a entire Chicken Margherita meal and have it be healthy too.

This idea of luxurious health applies to snacks as well. Consumers want to be able to snack on something that feels like a treat but is still healthy. That doesn’t mean you can go crazy marketing a line of healthy potato chips – the other 91% of us know better. However if you can find the right balance between healthy and decadence, then you will have found the sweet spot – literally.