Healthy Food Confusion

Here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we often take a look at food-related attitudes and behaviors — from what foods people think are healthy[1], to confusion about dietary fats[2], to how filling people believe “healthy” foods are[3]. These studies and surveys, taken together, show how many competing factors people are juggling when they decide what to eat, from how a food tastes to what it costs to how they think it will make them feel.

And a new survey highlights another factor that may be affecting food choices in the United States: confusion about what defines a healthy food. And this confusion — which may be due to a glut of information — sometimes makes people fall back on mental shortcuts that don’t always point to the healthiest foods.

The survey, published last week[4] by the International Food Information Council Foundation, looks each year at how Americans make food choices — both in real life, and in hypothetical examples on the survey — and how confident they are in these choices. Notably, this year 78% of respondents said they encounter a great deal of conflicting information about what to eat or avoid, and 56% said this led them to doubt the choices they made. While 96% said they sought out health benefits from their foods — with weight loss being the most commonly desired benefit — only 45% could name a single food or nutrient associated with weight loss, cardiovascular health, energy, or digestive health.

As noted in a CNN article on the survey[5], certain answers saw a gap between older and younger respondents. For example, while 50% of respondents over age 65 identified unsaturated fats as “healthy,” only 33% of those ages 18–34 did the same. Respondents ages 50–80 were more confident in their food choices than younger ones, with 47% doubting their choices, versus 61% of those ages 18–49. They were also less likely than those under 50 to use friends and family as a source for nutrition information.

To see what kinds of mental shortcuts people use to decide whether a food is healthy, the survey included questions comparing hypothetical products. Even when two products had the same nutrition information, respondents were more likely to say that one was healthier when it was fresh, rather than canned or frozen; was bought at a natural foods store, rather than a convenience store; had a shorter ingredients list; or cost more money. These answers show that when it comes to making rational, informed choices about nutrition, many Americans still could use some further guidance.

What’s your reaction to this survey — do you doubt some of the food choices you make, or do you feel you have a good sense of what’s healthy and what’s not? What sources of nutrition information do you consider trustworthy? Are these the sources that actually guide your choices? What are the main health benefits you seek from your food? Leave a comment below!

  1. what foods people think are healthy:
  2. confusion about dietary fats:
  3. how filling people believe “healthy” foods are:
  4. published last week:
  5. article on the survey:

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