‘Most shoppers don’t know what HFSS is’: Do consumers actually want healthy food and drink?

By Flora Southey and Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Where does 'health' fit into the purchase decision hierarchy? GettyImages/RapidEye
Where does 'health' fit into the purchase decision hierarchy? GettyImages/RapidEye

Related tags Lumina Intelligence

The answer is not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but nuanced, explains Flora Zwolinksi, senior insight manager at Lumina Intelligence.

Junk food high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) is on industry’s radar. In the UK, rules limiting the location of HFSS foods in shops has already come into play, and it’s expected more junk food restrictions – including multibuy deals – are on the way.

As food makers work to reformulate HFSS product to comply with incoming legislations, ‘healthy’ food is front of mind. While it’s likely non-HFSS will take a greater market share in the UK, the laws don’t reflect whether consumers want healthy food choices.

So where does ‘health’ fit on the purchase decision hierarchy? The market insight provider – owned by FoodNavigator publisher William Reed – has consulted its Eating & Drinking Out Panel and Convenience Tracking Panel in the UK to find out.

How much consumers understand about brands’ HFSS reformulation efforts is a grey area. “HFSS has become an industry term,” ​explained Flora Zwolinski, senior insight manager at Lumina Intelligence. “The vast majority of consumers have absolutely no idea what HFSS is.”

‘Value’ the most important priority

Asking a 1,500-strong national representative sample weekly survey questions instantly reveals a significant finding: health is not the number one priority for consumers when making purchase decisions.

“We know that value is the number one most important thing to consumers,” ​explained Flora Zwolinski, senior insight manager at Lumina Intelligence. “And in the context of cost-of-living at the moment, value is becoming increasingly more so.”

Indeed, 77% of consumers surveyed identified as being ‘very value led’ this year, compared to 73% last year. Being ‘very quality led’ has taken a hit this year – down from 73% last year to 70% in 2023.

foodservice YinYang
Lumina Intelligence has shared insights from its Eating & Drinking Out Panel and Convenience Tracking Panel. GettyImages/YinYang

‘Health’ is further down the agenda, with 38% of respondents identifying as ‘very health conscious’ this year. While low, this is an uptick from last year’s findings (37%). “Normally in recessionary periods, it’s not uncommon to see health take a bit of a backseat, as [healthier products] can be a bit expensive, so it’s not really at the forefront of consumers’ agendas,” ​explained the senior insight manager at FoodNavigator’s recent Positive Nutrition Summit in London.

Zwolinksi puts this unlikely finding down to COVID-19, with consumer interest in health and wellbeing increasing as a result of the global pandemic.

The most health conscious? Affluent Millennials

Within this segment of ‘very health conscious’ consumers, the level of health consciousness varies. “Not all shoppers are as health conscious as each other,” ​explained the senior insight manager.

Analysing age and salary helps paint a picture of which demographics most value health. According to Lumina Intelligence data, health is more important to younger shoppers, particularly those aged between 25 and 44 years of age – largely of the Millennials generation.

These same shoppers are also very value-led. “Value doesn’t necessarily mean cheap,” ​explained the senior insights manager. “Value for money is all about communicating the product’s worth, telling consumers what they’re going to get from these healthy products.”

Concentrating solely on value, Lumina Intelligence’s data suggests that consumers on the lowest incomes are the least health conscious while also being the most value-led.

Unsurprisingly, those with the highest incomes have the luxury to be the most value-led and the most health conscious, we were told.

“It’s the affluent Millennials who are the most health-conscious shoppers and the ones your [healthy] products are most likely to win with.”

Of course, not all consumers fit into this demographic. Analysing reasons consumers select establishments when eating out-of-home reveals that familiarity and location convenience far outweigh health. “Health is actually really far down the decision hierarchy,” ​explained Zwolinksi.

“What’s more important to consumers is familiarity, meaning they’ve been there before and know it tastes good, and importantly, that it’s close to where they are. Convenience is really key, as is good value for money.

“So you can have an amazing health proposition that has lots of health benefits, but if it doesn’t taste that great…if it’s not convenient for shoppers, and it costs a lot, the span of consumers you’re going to…resonate with will be quite small.”

Health-conscious consumers still want treats

However much we try to pigeonhole consumers, they are not unilateral: even the most health-conscious shoppers want to treat themselves sometimes.

Within the ‘very health conscious’ shopper segment, 14% of out-of-home missions are treat-led, and 27% of the time they buy chips. “It’s about really understanding that shoppers want to eat treats sometimes as well as wanting a health offer [at other times],” ​explained Zwolinksi.

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Flora Zwolinksi, senior insight manager at Lumina Intelligence spoke at FoodNavigator's recent Positive Nutrition Summit in London.

From a convenience market perspective, 11% of the time ‘very health-conscious’ shoppers are on a treat-led mission and 14% of the time they’re buying confectionery.

“Health-led shoppers still want a treat, they don’t want to go out and just have lettuce,” ​continued the senior insights manager. “They want something interesting, tasty, different. The wining formula is around positioning it as a bit of a treat, making sure taste is prioritised, and using this to help deliver value to consumers.”

'It’s up to food and beverage brands to deliver'

Other industry insights reveal similar findings. Research conducted by ingredients suppliers, for example, suggests that consumers are looking for a wider range of healthier products in the supermarket. 

“We did a consumer survey and found that 64% of the respondents are willing to pay more for healthier products. So even though price, inflation, and cost of ingredients is going up. Consumers are still willing to pay more for healthier products,”​ according to Olivia Jackson, European category manager at Synergy. 

Reformulation can also sometimes lengthen ingredients lists however: a fact which may put off those consumers seeking shorter ingredients lists. This is another area that Synergy has investigated. "We asked 70 respondents if they look at ingredients on back of pack and what do they look for, and 50% confirmed they don't check the back of pack ingredient list,”​ said Jackson.

In a larger survey, Synergy asked 500 people if they check for allergens, minerals and vitamins on pack; the length of the ingredients list; and if they look for ingredients that they know. “30% said that they don't check the list at all,”​ revealed Jackson. These survey insights are surprising, said Synergy, and suggest that front of pack health claims are more important to consumers than the full ingredients list.

How do these consumer insights impact reformulation? Synergy’s European marketing director Paola Bassi said that by limiting the commercial opportunities of HFSS products the industry is offering a broader portfolio that includes products that are healthier.

But the dilemma for manufacturers is that while consumers look for healthier products, at the same time they want the opportunity to choose ones that are indulgent and a treat. “It's very difficult sometimes to work on the key products because consumers are very loyal to a certain taste and level of sweetness and creaminess… This is why our customers need a broad portfolio that covers these different needs,”​ we were told.

Well-known beverage and confectionary brands, with products well-penetrated products with a loyal following, are therefore launching healthier alternatives in parallel with very well-known products that are less balanced. “Consumers want the choice to be able to buy the healthier alternative,” ​said Bassi.

Synergy, for example, supports manufacturers during the development process with formulation – this includes developing flavours and concepts, supporting taste modulation and maintaining flavour when certain ingredients are reduced or replaced, and improving textural quality of end products.

The message for manufacturers, stressed Bassi, is to focus on simplicity.

“Nobody will gain from adding too many ingredients in one solution in the solution we offer to our customers. For sure we have the reference of delivering a good taste but also from our perspective the simpler the formulation the better. The interest is mutual to not have too long ingredients lists or too complicated things.”

Willingness to pay impacted by cost-of-living crisis

Another ingredients supplier, Cargill, agreed that the reformulation of foods and beverages to reduce levels of calories, fat, sugar or salt without sacrificing taste, appearance, textural attributes, nutritional properties, and cost while maintaining a friendly label is challenging – to say the least.

The company agreed that currently consumers are feeling the effects of inflation. “They’re paying close attention to prices and making conscious decisions on how to stretch their grocery budgets. Their willingness to pay is relative to that dynamic. However, we also know consumers value products they perceive as healthier, especially if those products also live up to their expectations around taste and texture,” ​Martina Foschia Cargill senior application specialist bakery, told FoodNavigator. “There’s always room for indulgence,”​ she said. “And there’s no longer a reason why indulgence and health need to be mutually exclusive. For some brands, offering a fully HFSS-compliant portfolio will be central to their value proposition. But that doesn’t preclude them from offering products that deliver indulgence.”

Its recent research into the chocolate confectionery and bakery space found that health-related attributes registered as some of consumers’ biggest unmet needs, spanning desires for products that delivered portion control, balanced great taste and health, supplied energy boosts without sugar crashes and offered greater satiety – highlighting an untapped opportunity within the space of ‘healthy indulgence’. 

“Taste remains paramount,”​ Foschia said, “but with today’s advanced tools it’s possible to offer reduced and no-sugar-added products, while still delivering on taste and label expectations.”

Cargill has further identified reformulation as an opportunity to not only remove the ‘baddies’, but introduce the ‘goodies’ Soluble fibre is a great example of this,”​ said Foschia. They are label-friendly ingredients, nature-derived, familiar, and simple ingredients – exactly what consumers seek when they check the label. Further, they offer fibre enrichment and support sugar reduction, helping consumers reach their healthy dietary goals and close the fibre gap. As a result, fibres can help to enable a Nutri-Score improvement, if done in conjuncture with reformulation that reduces sugars and fat levels.”

Potassium chloride is another ingredient that does double duty, she told us. “It can enable up to 50% reductions in salt, while also boosting potassium intake, an under-consumed nutrient known to help counter the effect of sodium on blood pressure.”  

These decisions of how to decide which ‘good’ ingredients go in should be grounded in a solid understanding of the target consumer’s needs and expectations, Foschia added. Fibres – nutritional, label-friendly and perceived as health-positive – are clear beneficiaries of these prevailing attitudes. Our research finds most any ingredient referencing “fibre” in the name scores well with consumers."

There are some regional adaptations too that need to be considered in a fortification strategy, as well as considerations on the target group addressed through the food products too, she explained. “For example, when it comes to fibre fortification there are countries where the gap with recommendations is higher than others, and therefore any fortification could be more impactful than others.”

She concluded: “Consumers want it all. Indulgence, nutrition, label friendliness, value – they have high expectations, and it’s up to food and beverage brands to deliver.”

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