How has COVID-19 changed consumer food and drink preferences?


Ingredient suppliers share their latest research on how consumer attitudes towards functional foods and beverages changed over the past year.

Photo © Music

Photo © Music

Like many consumer categories, the food and drink market saw marked shifts in purchasing behavior throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies that supply health-promoting ingredients for functional food and beverages have been tracking these trends and are advising their clients on how these shifts could reshape the lay of the land ahead.

In general, the consensus is that more consumers are concerned about their health and are looking to adjust their food and drink purchases to achieve better wellness.

In a survey conducted on more than 13,000 respondents across 16 countries in January 2021, ingredient supplier Kerry (Beloit, WI) found that 4 in 10 consumers surveyed had increased their purchases of functional foods, beverages, and dietary supplements since the pandemic started. For instance, 42% of respondents said they had increased their purchases of functional or fortified foods and beverages, while 44% said they had bought more dietary supplements.

Condition Specific

Glanbia Nutritionals (Chicago, IL) has been tracking trends in consumer health behaviors related to the pandemic since March 2020. This June, the company shared insights on some of the trends it identified over the past year.

Immune support is a key consumer goal, including when making food and beverage purchases. Preferences also differ by age group. Said Glanbia in a press release: “Boomers are more likely to reach for beverages that are fortified with immune system–supporting ingredients, and Gen X is more likely to prefer eating foods that are fortified with immune system–supporting ingredients. Meanwhile, Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to reach for beverages that are naturally high in immune system–supporting ingredients.”

Kerry’s survey also found immune health to be the leading consumer goal. When the survey asked respondents to list their reasons for buying healthy products, 58% chose immune support, 46% listed bone and joint health, 43% listed digestive health, 40% listed heart health, and 39% selected improved energy. Kerry’s survey found that as many as 39% of respondents had used an immune health product over the past six months; moreover, another 30% said they would consider doing so in the future.

In terms of which types of immune foods and beverages are likely to be successful, 33% of survey respondents said they would be interested in buying fruit and vegetable juices containing ingredients that support immune health, 31% said they would consider immune-supporting spoonable yogurt, 28% said the same for dairy-based drinks, and 24% said they would be interested in immune-supporting hot beverages.

John Quilter, Kerry’s vice president of global portfolio, ProActive Health, said in a press release: “One of our key findings was the scale of the impact of the pandemic on demand—not just for immune health products, but for functional foods, beverages, and supplements overall. Consumers were adopting increasingly proactive, holistic attitudes to health, wellness, and nutrition long before 2020, but the pandemic has massively accelerated this trend.”

Supplier Beneo (Parsippany, NJ) also predicts that the energy food and drink market could get a lift. According to a survey conducted on behalf of the company on 5,000 European consumers, nearly 1 in 3 survey respondents said they felt tired and a lack of energy during the pandemic, and “half of those surveyed said that they have been looking to food and drink products to help them make it through the day.” Adults 18- to 34-years-old are especially likely to seek out energy-boosting products, as are consumers with children. The company notes that, with their renewed focus on health, consumers seeking products such as energy drinks will be looking for healthier alternatives with more natural ingredients or products that provide sustained energy and less sugar.

Consumer Specific

Health and wellness are priorities for many consumers now, with Glanbia noting that in general consumers are seeking to cut sugar, calories, salt, and carbs, especially in snack foods, and to increase their intake of healthy ingredients like protein, good fats, and vitamins and minerals.

Features consumers prioritize as healthy can differ by age, the company points out. For instance, “There are strong generational differences between what constitutes ‘clean label’ and ‘better for you’; 43% of Boomers prefer to have foods or beverages made with simple, real ingredients, while 43% of Gen Z prefers to have something labeled as ‘no preservatives, artificial ingredients, high-fructose corn syrup, or trans fats.’”

Older consumers are more likely to seek out food and drinks offering specific health benefits, Glanbia adds, while younger consumers are more likely to be drawn in to these products instead by authentic global flavors and the possibility of making social connections through food or drink occasions.

Personalization will also continue to be critical to communicate to consumers “why a particular food or beverage is ‘just right’ for that consumer,” Glanbia adds.

Making an emotional connection through marketing is also important. For instance, Glanbia notes, “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a heightened desire for nostalgic flavors and formats, particularly in snacks. There is an increasing desire among younger consumers to experience new and more global flavors. In some markets, indulgent categories have recognized the importance of emotions and have added on-pack messages about the potential feelings associated with a product.”

Future Promise

The healthy foods and beverages market will continue to serve as a bridge between consumers and their health goals, opening up opportunities for manufacturers in the space.

As Beneo’s press release notes, “As well as fatigue being an increasing issue, the pandemic has also made people more aware of the fragility of health and the need to look after themselves. More than ever before, consumers are making the link between their diet and their health, with 63% making an increased effort to eat and drink healthier in the future because of the pandemic. Also, staying fit and active and having a balanced diet have been major concerns during the pandemic, and 2 in 3 consumers now see a healthy diet as key to controlling their future health.”

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