How ‘progressive consumers’ are redefining health and wellness… and is fat really back?

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Fat is back, says Hartman Group
Fat is back, says Hartman Group

Related tags Nutrition

While cynics observe that biodynamic cane sugar is still sugar, and gourmet Himalayan pink salt is still good old sodium chloride, it’s a fact that trends which might seem to have niche appeal are increasingly heading to the mainstream, and that a small, but increasingly influential group of what Hartman Group calls ‘progressive consumers’ is now redefining food culture. 

And while it might sound counter-intuitive given the lackluster state of the economy, the highest growth areas are frequently at the premium end of many grocery categories, from cold brew coffee and Icelandic yogurt to electrolyte-infused waters, says Hartman Group.

But how is this small, but powerful, group of affluent and educated ‘upscale’ shoppers redefining health and wellness?

In an ACT (anthropology, culture, trends) seminar devoted to this topic in Seattle on September 24, Hartman Group progressive speakers noted that while ‘progressive’ shoppers might be a minority group in terms of overall numbers, the influence they have over food culture - and the choices made by ‘mid-market’ shoppers - is disproportionate.

From condition management and dieting to fresh, less processed, ‘real’ food   

And when it comes to health and wellness, said CEO Laurie Demeritt, these shoppers are no longer thinking about condition management (cholesterol reduction, sodium reduction), or ‘dieting’ (low fat, low carb), but are much more focused on real, quality food, positive nutrition, fresh, less processed foods (tea, hummus, fermented beverages), and fun (not self-denial and discipline). 

Fat is back

If you think about this shift from a product perspective, added Melissa Abbott, VP culinary insights, that means moving from products such as fat-free bagels, diet soda and 100-calorie portion packs, to kale, dark chocolate, and ‘quality fats’ such as avocadoes, nuts, and even butter, which is regarded as more authentic and natural – and therefore as more healthy - than lower-fat vegetable-oil-based spreads, despite its higher saturated fat content.

Meanwhile, she added, “Increasing evidence ​shows that there is no clear proof that saturated fat contributes to heart disease.”

And while not every nutritional scientist would agree [the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee still recommends limiting saturated fats although it stresses that dietary advice should ‘put the emphasis on optimizing types of dietary fat and not reducing total fat’​], consumers are definitely less concerned about fat - and saturated fat - than they used to be, and are more likely to be concerned about sugar, she said.

"Visionary food companies are not only passionate about food culture, they also understand the progressive consumer, so they can authentically speak to main stream consumer aspirations." Melissa Abbott, VP, culinary insights, Hartman Group

Who made it, how was it made?

Meanwhile, added Abbott, progressive consumers are also seeking foods that are more ‘inherently flavorful’ than those which are ‘embellished’ or rendered tasty due to added flavors.

And when it comes to food brands, she said, the people behind the brand, the sustainability credentials of the business, and the production process, are becoming almost as important as the ingredients, with small-scale, artisanal, ‘craft’ techniques featuring more heavily in marketing and more consumers looking at the ‘About Us’ section of company websites.

As for how much processing is deemed acceptable by consumers, it depends on the product, she said, so soy protein isolate extracted with hexane might be regarded negatively, for example, while tempeh – a traditional soy-based food – is regarded more positively by some consumers.

Holistic health and wellness… and ‘mindfulness’

In general, she said, health, wellness and sustainability are starting to converge at the most progressive food retail and foodservice outlets, which consumers see as being all about mindfulness, integrity, and authenticity.

But it’s not just about food, she stressed. Health and wellness is also about stress reduction, more restful sleep, having fun, and physical exercise.

As for sustainability, it remains something of a nebulous concept for many consumers, who claim to make purchasing decisions based on brands’ green credentials, but typically struggle to name sustainable brands or companies in unprompted survey questions, said consultant Jennifer Goodrich.

alternative proteins hartman act
Alternative proteins were a hot topic at the Hartman Group event

Nevertheless, she said, when consumers are judging the health, wellness and sustainability credentials of brands today, they are increasingly thinking about three things: What’s in it? How was it made? Who made it?

We’re seeing a shift in focus from the heart to the gut

While consumer understanding of pre- and probiotics might still be limited, consumers are thinking more broadly about digestive health in the sense that they are avoiding foods that make them feel bloated and lethargic, said Abbott.

“We can expect a more sophisticated understanding of digestive health and inflammation that will spread to the mainstream of food culture as understanding of the microbiome grows.”

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of consumers believe that “good digestion is key to feeling good and the root of all wellness,”​ said VP strategic insights, June Jo Lee.

sorghum pops hartman act
'Ancient grains' such as sorghum are gaining traction, says Hartman Group

Consumers are judging the healthfulness of foods based on how they feel day to day,”​ and increasingly avoiding foods that make them feel tired, sluggish or bloated, she said: “We’re seeing a shift in focus from the heart to the gut."

Energy is not just about coffee and Red Bull

And this is also tied to energy, added senior ethnographic analyst Sarah Marion, noting that consumers frequently talk about wanting to feel more energetic, and see this in terms of their overall lifestyle and eating patterns as well as narrowly focusing on products making energy claims.

When consumers judge the health, wellness & sustainability credentials of brands, they are thinking about three things, says Hartman Group:

  • What’s in it?
  • How was it made?
  • Who made it?

So while products such as kombucha, smoothies, Yerba Mate Tea and Runa (tea-based beverages using the guayusa leaf, a natural source of caffeine) might be seen as offering a more modern, ‘clean’ take on energy than Red Bull and coffee, consumers are also thinking about energy in terms of lean protein, fruits and veggies, smaller meals, and better digestive health, she said.

Read more about disruptive health & wellness brands highlighted at the Hartman Group ACT event HERE​.

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