- In a recent survey of 5,000 U.S. consumers, the Brightfield Group's Evergi Consumer Insights platform gauged the attitudes of the "COVID-concerned" — or those who listed COVID-19 among their top three sources of stress. These consumers were 13 points more likely than the general population to say they maintained a healthy diet to deal with stress and improve their well being.
- Baby boomers made up the largest share of this group, likely because older people tend to suffer the most serious complications from the virus. The survey found more than half of the COVID-concerned were female. Evergi said this may be tied to the fact that women have felt more of the burden from closed schools and job losses.
- With the COVID-concerned group skewing older, these consumers gravitate to products that offer support to heart and digestive health, boost the immune system and help lower cholesterol, according to the Evergi survey. While this group is just one segment of the total U.S. population, it has been driving product introductions and innovations during the past year that may linger long after the pandemic passes.
Food as medicine: It's not a new concept. A 2019 white paper from ingredients company Kerry Group found 65% of consumers seek functional benefits from their food and drink. The pandemic has amplified this attribute as a way for consumers to take control of protecting their health during a chaotic time.
In the Evergi research, nearly two-thirds of all consumers agreed an individual can substitute functional foods and beverages for some medicines. With digestive health top of mind, the COVID-concerned consumed more offerings like Icelandic yogurt. At the same time, since this group is also more likely to deal with health issues such as diabetes, they preferred low-sugar products, such as cauliflower-crust frozen pizza and hard seltzer. And they ate fewer items such as caffeinated snack bars, bean-based chips and protein cookies than the general population. Evergi suggested this may be because of the group's concerns around preservatives.
The functional products that most consumers reported purchasing during the past three weeks — the survey was conducted Dec. 3 to 14, 2020 — included energy drinks, high-protein yogurt, vitamin-enhanced water and low-calorie ice cream.
As consumers gravitate toward more of these offerings, manufacturers have been introducing more of them to the market place.
Molson Coors Beverage, for example, signed an exclusive distribution deal last month for ZOA, a nonalcoholic energy drink loaded with natural ingredients such as turmeric, camu camu and acerola cherry, as well as vitamins C, D and B, added electrolytes and amino acids. The beverage is made without preservatives, artificial ingredients or additives. In Evergi's research, the COVID-concerned consumers were more likely to say ingredient claims were important to them, with 52% preferring "real food ingredients" and 40% "no preservatives" statements.
Enhanced waters offering atypical functional benefits also have increased during the last year. Hellowater and agri-tech firm Brandt recently announced an upcoming product line with immunity-boosting and detoxifying properties. In 2020, Ocean Spray debuted a new line of sugar-free functional waters and CBD sparkling waters..
When tracking conversations about wellness on social media, Evergi found the most commonly discussed ingredients were CBD at 22% of mentions. Beverage manufacturers such as Molson Coors and SweetWater Brewing are launching products in the space, with other manufacturers eager to jump in if regulatory guidance is put in place.
Evergi also measured higher mentions of garlic, lavender, ginger and collagen in wellness conversations on social media. These ingredients — as well as immunity-boosting options such as honey, turmeric, citrus, mushrooms and fermented foods — offer promise in meeting the demand for wellness during the pandemic.
The COVID-concerned group was 37 points more likely than the general population to like plant-based meats, the survey found. This dynamic is helping drive what has been a massive trend across food and beverage, with new introductions of plant-based cheese, investments flowing to dairy alternative milks and new partnerships forged by Big Food and startups eager to enter the growing category.
For manufacturers, the challenge will be formulating products and wording labels that speak to the concerns and motivations of the COVID-concerned consumers — and holding their interest long after the pandemic shifts into the rear-view mirror.