Synopsis: Most people would like to eat healthy foods. But other factors such as cost and ease of preparation are much more important in our food choices. A longtime food market researcher discusses why we choose the foods we eat.

Host: Nancy Benson. Guest: Harry Balzer, Chief Industry Analyst, NPD Group.

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Food Trends


Nancy Benson: The old expression says “you are what you eat.” if that’s true, then Americans probably figure we’re all made of burgers, fries and a coke. And it’s been that way for a long, long time.

Harry Balzer: The number one item ordered at a restaurant in 1978 do you know what it was? Carbonated soft drink. That was the number one thing. Do you know what it was yesterday? Carbonated soft drinks. After all these years of change, matter of fact, the top three things were a hamburger, carbonated soft drink, and a fry. That’s exactly what it is today: a hamburger, a carbonated soft drink, and a fry. After all these years, we’ve talked about how we’ve moved so much, and we have moved. We’ve incorporated other things into our diet but the truth of the matter is probably what’s changed is the brand of carbonated soft drink, the bread that that hamburger is on, the meat that might be on it, the toppings that may be on it. But in the end what did I order? A hamburger, a fry, and a soft drink.

Nancy Benson: That’s Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for the NPD group, a consumer marketing research firm that tracks a lot of our habits, including how we eat–and why. Balzer has been following our food choices for 35 years, and he says most of us make assumptions about them that are completely wrong. For example, while it’s true that Americans eat a lot of fast food, it’s probably not as much as you think. Recently the centers for disease control and prevention reported that Americans get 11.5 percent of their calories from fast food restaurants.

Harry Balzer: There were some people who said “That’s shocking! I thought it was higher it’s only 11%?” There are a lot of people who talk about how we eat in this country. Most of them do it without any data. They do it from what they observe by what they see they see a lot of coffee places they think were drinking more coffee. Were not drinking more coffee the peak year for coffee consumption in this country was 1946. Not this year. Not last year. But it’s easy to talk about it because we all participate in the marketplace but having data gives you a different perspective of who we really are.

Nancy Benson: Certainly, “who we are” is a lot different today than it was 60 years ago. Back then, we ate the vast majority of our meals at home, and going out to a restaurant was a rare treat. One thing was enough to change that.

Harry Balzer: The single greatest event that affected our eating habits in this country began right after World War II. It was when women started going into the workplace. And as more and more women entered the workplace, and it was something like in1950, 33% of all women over the age of 16 were employed. By the time we get to the year 2000, it was 60%. It close to doubled. No other fact has impacted the way Americans eat more than that.

Nancy Benson: Balzer says as women went to work outside the home, we began to consider ease of preparation as a much more important factor in our food choices.

Harry Balzer: The goal was how can we make life easier, because we’re gonna have to feed ourselves four or five times during the course of the day. Who was going to prepare that food? In the past there was an answer to this. As the future moved, and in this future, who is going to prepare that food? It doesn’t want to be us. I don’t know who it’s going to be but I know this: I don’t want it to be me. Who do I want it to be? I want it to be someone else. I want it to be the restaurant industry. And the restaurant industry grew by leaps and bounds during that 50-year period from 1950 to the year 2000. Since that period, we’ve had no growth in the restaurant industry on a per person basis. It’s been pretty flat. But yet I still have this great desire to have someone else do the cooking for me. I don’t want to do the cooking. So where do we turn? We turn to the supermarket shelves– the processed food, the food that doesn’t require cooking, bringing together little assembly? Do we want this? Absolutely. There is no question. And, that has been the driving force in our eating habits over the last 50 years.

Nancy Benson: The other major factor in our food choices is cost. You may think food is expensive, but Balzer says Americans spend less on food than anyone else. And we change our choices to make sure it stays that way.

Harry Balzer: The percent of our income that we give to food is lower than any other place that’s been measured. It’s about 9.5% of our income now goes to food. It never increases in good times or bad times. We’ll find ways to keep that either stable or declining as a percent of our income. So, if our incomes go up we spend more, but if our incomes are not going up, we look for changing the way we eat. And how could we do that? How can we manage our food budget? One: don’t use restaurants as often.Two: don’t use animal proteins as often, ‘cause they’re more expensive. Still eat them, but don’t eat them as often. You get more grain based foods. We’ll always be looking at those two things that are most important to our lives and the changes. How do we save money? And how do we make life easier?

Nancy Benson: Packaged foods have been the beneficiary. They’re easy and less expensive than a meal out. But apparently, our tolerance for preparation has dropped to almost nothing.

Harry Balzer: You know what the number one fastest growing food in the last ten years in the American diet has been? I will tell you it was yogurt. Nothing has grown faster in more American diets than yogurt. And your first blush at that is geez, well, I can understand that’s a healthy product, it’s a good for you product, but it also is breakfast, it could be lunch, it could be supper, and it is the fastest growing dessert in America. It could be a snack. It could be the main dish. It could be the side dish, or it could be the dessert. Moms like it more, kids like it more, and even men like it more. Yogurt satisfies one thing very important to us it’s a easy meal you never have to cook yogurt. It’s a wonderful item that says easy, time saving and I think it’s healthier I think it’s better for me. It says everything you need to know about what America wants from its food suppliers. I want something I don’t have to cook, satisfies a lot of meals, can be snack can be any part of the meal and I don’t have to cook it and it would be nice if it was healthier.

Nancy Benson: Health, however, is an attribute that’s not all that important. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s just that cost, ease, and familiarity trumps everything else.

Harry Balzer: It would be nice if it was healthy Oh it would be great if it had other attributes but it’s gotta be easy and it’s gotta be cheap and I really don’t want something that’s too far field from what I know so I’m not looking to be Christopher Columbus and explore the world. I want to see the sight of land so give me a new way to give me the things I like. Give me a new hamburger, give me a new pizza, give me a new soft drink. I love those things I’m looking for the novelty of my food but foods I already know.

Nancy Benson: What’s more, Balzer says aren’t too sure what “health” means in a food. Often, it’s a fad that changes from one year to the next.

Harry Balzer: The desire to have and lead a healthy life has not changed. That has always been present it’s how do you go about doing it that has changed. The truth of the matter is all these health issues any one health issue goes through a trend that rises and then falls. Were in the low carb diet then were not on the low carb diet, were trying to remove cholesterol and then were not concerned about cholesterol, sodium becomes the issue and then were not concerned about sodium as much. But were always looking for what’s that latest way to deal with health because the truth of the matter is this is a very difficult issue. And it doesn’t show it’s results immediately it takes a lifetime this isn’t like making life easier or making food costs cheaper. Time and money can be measured immediately. Health is different try doing on a diet and see how long it is before you see measurable results. We tend to lose interest in these things so we keep seeking out what’s the next health issue so the truth of the matter is in my mind were always looking for health we want to be healthy we just don’t know how to define this.

Nancy Benson: The most recent definition, Balzer says, is avoiding gluten. About 30 percent of people say they’re trying to avoid gluten in their diets. But if so many people are interested enough in health to do that… Why don’t we eat our vegetables? Balzer says that’s actually another myth.

Harry Balzer: Vegetables are eaten more in this country than only one other thing sandwiches. The number two thing eaten in this country overall is a vegetable of some sort. Matter of fact if I gave you the top three things this country eats in total as an end dish it would be number one a sandwich now again I’m not talking about in home or away from home I’m talking about everything. Number one would be a sandwich number two would be a vegetable as an end dish and number three would be fruit those are the top three things consumed in this country. And how many times do we hear people saying eat more fruits and vegetables. To which I have a little chuckle saying eat more than what? Only sandwiches is what I eat more of! And even that sandwich probably has some vegetable on it. So the truth is we eat a lot of fruits and vegetables what we’d like is for those fruits and vegetables to be easier in the future and cheaper in the future and if you could do that I’ll eat more.

Nancy Benson: It’s also a myth that we eat three meals per day. Three full meals, yes, but Balzer says most people actually eat about five times a day. You might call some of those a snack, but he says we’re remarkably consistent in consuming about 15 items per day. With every one, we’re making decisions based on certain needs and attributes, and often, taste and health are far down the list. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Nancy Benson.

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