October, 2014

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Americans Are Putting Faith In Superfoods To Control Their Health

By Haley Hastings, Marketing Assistant, Nielsen Perishables Group

In recent years, health and wellness has become a top priority for consumers across the U.S. According to a recent Nielsen survey, Health & Wellness in America, the desire to achieve an improved quality of life drives consumers to pursue specific health and wellness behaviors, such as consuming healthy foods or reading package labels. And amidst the steady stream of health-focused fads, many consumers are going back to basics and proactively using food to address their health issues. Three-fourths of consumers believe they can manage health through nutrition and nearly one-third believe food can take the place of medicine.

Enter the “superfood.” Consumers are seeking these nutrient-rich products in increasing numbers — and we’re not just talking kale (although the leafy green shows no signs of waning in popularity, increasing at a compound annual rate of 56.6 percent from 2009 to 2013). A variety of superfoods are finding their way from the produce department into shoppers’ carts across the U.S.

But what exactly is a superfood? For a recent paper published in the CDC’s journal, Preventing Chronic Disease, Nielsen studied 41 powerhouse fruits and vegetables that contain at least 10 percent daily value of 17 nutrients per 100 calories. Using these criteria, certain familiar categories including kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and spinach all made the list. During the latest 52 weeks ending July 26, 2014, kale posted the strongest dollar and volume growth among these super vegetables, up 65 percent and 55 percent, respectively. The number of unique kale items selling on store shelves (impressions) also increased during this period, up 50 percent compared to the previous year. Brussels sprouts followed similar growth patterns, increasing dollar and volume sales 17 percent and 7 percent, and impressions 15 percent during this time. Cabbage dollar and volume jumped 9 percent and 3 percent.

The list of nutrient-dense products also included some categories that many consumers wouldn’t necessarily associate with the term “superfood.” Limes, pumpkins, mustard greens and dandelion greens all made the list — smaller, less common categories like dandelion greens even posted significant growth, up 11 percent in dollar sales and 7 percent in volume.

Some of the most nutrient-dense foods on Nielsen’s list included watercress, Chinese cabbage, chard, beet greens and spinach. Among these superfoods, spinach topped dollar and volume sales growth during the latest 52 weeks, up nearly 7 percent and 3 percent, respectively. However, chard and beet greens each decreased dollar and volume sales compared to the previous year. Chard posted dips in dollar and volume sales of 1 percent and 3 percent during the latest 52 weeks, while beet greens posted significant declines, down 15 percent and 18 percent from the previous year. While fluctuations in seasonality and retail pricing likely play a part in these declines, lack of consumer education on the benefits of these foods and how to prepare them might also come into play.

According to the Nielsen survey, 40 percent of consumers surveyed expressed confusion over nutritional labeling, pointing to an opportunity for retailers and manufacturers to further educate consumers with accessible, easy-to-understand and transparent nutritional information. Touting the benefits of lesser-known and surprising superfoods for health-hungry consumers could be a key step on the path to further category growth.

Additionally, half of the 471 participants in the Nielsen survey noted they were not willing to give up taste for health. For retailers and manufacturers, creative merchandising for superfoods via recipe ideas or cross promotions with spices, seasonings and other meal components can go a long way toward providing the added kick for meal solutions that are both healthy and good-tasting.

Will Superfood Items Grow Overall Produce Consumption?

Let us start with the obvious: If you are a producer or a marketing board representing produce that has come to be seen as a “superfood,” and if you market the dickens out of this situation, you will get a boost in sales. The very name, with the word “super” so prominent, tells consumers they should want to buy and eat this product.

If one can pay for research that will allow one to claim superfood status for the product at hand, that is probably a prudent investment.

It is always great to have authors pushing one’s products. But it is important to understand the whole superfood phenomenon is a marketing matter, not a nutritional definition. In fact, nutritionists and dieticians don’t use such terms, mostly because there is just no evidence individual foods have an impact on human health or longevity.

Most of the claims made for so-called Superfoods are not directly related to human health. Research may show a particular item is rich in a vitamin or that it’s rich in an antioxidant, but almost always, there is no widespread nutritional deficiency among humans in that vitamin, and there is no known connection between, say, antioxidants and human longevity.

In other words, when parts of the produce industry harp on Superfoods, they may get a short-term bang for the buck, but they are also playing into the consumer desire for a quick fix. Just as lots of consumers spend fortunes on vitamins without known effect, now some will eat a particular food in expectation of preventing cancer or maintaining virility.

Of course, this quick-fix mentality — though possibly helping individual items — is probably not the way to increase overall produce consumption. For that to happen, we need to see a switch to a mindfulness about nutrition that leads people to seek a “super diet” rather than individual foods. The evidence here is not perfect, but there is meaningful evidence that diets, such as the Mediterranean Diet, can play a positive role in increasing human health.

Right now, the focus on Superfoods leads to a substitution effect. So if kale is suddenly the “wonderfood,” restaurants may serve it, consumers may buy it at retail, and sales may boom, but spinach sales may decline as chefs and consumers replace one with the other. In order for produce consumption to grow, the chefs and consumers need to reorient their overall focus; instead of having a 32-ounce T-Bone steak with a side of veggies, the meal has to become a bowl of veggies, with a little protein added for flavor, as in a stir fry or salad.

In other words, the challenge for the produce industry — and those sincerely interested in using diet to enhance public health — is not to “gussy up” individual produce items as miracle workers. Instead, raise awareness of the advantages of a healthy diet, and point to ways fresh produce should make up a big part of it.

This is problematic. Just as consumers don’t really want to eat healthy — they really want to eat whatever they want, and then take a Lipitor to solve any resulting problems — so consumers don’t want to be told to stop looking for quick-fix produce items and focus on being conscious eaters throughout their diets.

It is very hard for industry members to restrain from using a marketing tool that will boost the numbers. Indeed, in marketing, one uses what one has. If one is fortunate to represent a product that authors and celebrities tout its super properties — say Goji berries — using that ammunition to sell is par for the course.

But it is worth remembering that on an industry-wide basis, the credibility of our message is very important. If we start standing behind things like Superfoods that are not strongly grounded in good science, our messaging may be ignored when we have something important and science-based to say.

Consumers are confused about nutrition and nutrition labeling, because giving out facts isn’t very meaningful without giving out context — just as the nutritional quality of individual foods is only meaningful in the context of the nutritional quality of the overall diet.

Superman is fun, flying in to save the day, but he is also fiction. The same can be said of all too many claims about superfoods.