The following is a guest post from Joseph Clayton, chief executive officer of the International Food Information Council.
For 15 years, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) has conducted an in-depth annual Food and Health Survey asking 1,000 American adults dozens of questions about their dietary habits, health conditions and attitudes toward food safety, environmental sustainability and the overall food system. Many of the answers are tracked from year to year to help us understand trends in the way we eat, shop and think about our food-related priorities.
This year’s survey results yielded key insights on how the American public is thinking and behaving when it comes to nutrition, food safety and agriculture in a time of incredible upheaval resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Additional surveys fielded during the past six months are further putting into perspective how COVID-19 is altering our approach to food. We’re noticing wide-ranging changes in what we’re eating, how we’re purchasing our food and our attitudes toward its safety and availability.
What we’re eating
If you have made changes to your diet since the pandemic began, you’re far from alone. Eighty-five percent of Americans report at least some change to their habits around eating or food preparation. Sixty percent say they’re cooking at home more, and many Americans say they are buying more packaged foods than usual.
All that time around the house means that over a third of us are also snacking more, a number that our surveys first picked up on in April and has remained constant through late summer. One in three (33%) say that they’re eating more often when they’re bored or not hungry, and nearly the same number (32%) say they’re eating snacks alone more often, an indicator of the shift to a more isolated lifestyle. Parents have been especially hard hit by disruptions to their food routine. For instance, 41% of parents with children under 18 said they are snacking more as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, versus 29% of those without children.
We’re also finding positive trends around consumer attention to healthier eating. In July, nearly 4 in 10 Americans said they were eating healthier now than before the pandemic, with only 10% reporting that they were eating less healthfully. Thirty percent reported snacking on fresh fruits and vegetables and eating healthy snacks more often since the pandemic began.
How we’re purchasing it
COVID-19 isn’t just changing the way we’re eating. It’s also changing how we obtain our food. In April, 16% of Americans said that they were shopping online for groceries due to the virus, a number that sharply increased in May (24%) before settling at around 20% in the summer.
Though increases in online shopping may be spurred on by the pandemic, it is consistent with the trend in online versus in-person shopping over the past several years, as noted in our recent Food and Health Surveys. In contrast, the number of people grocery shopping in-person at least once a week fell to 63% this year, driven by a decline in the number of people making multiple grocery trips a week.
As we enter the last months of 2020, the overall picture shows that people are less concerned — nearly across the board — about grocery shopping than they were when the pandemic first began. Fewer shoppers are worried about the health of grocery store employees (21% in September, down from 37% in April), the health of other shoppers (25% in September versus 42% in April) and running out of non-food staple items (18% in September versus 28% in April). Concerns have also fallen regarding running out of meat and fresh foods.
Some of IFIC’s grocery shopping data point to the pain being inflicted by the weak economy. In May, 41% reported paying more attention to their ability to find the products they needed, and 20% said they were concerned about being able to provide enough food for their families. Although the latter number dropped to 12% in June, it ticked up slightly to 14% in September, an indication of the persistence of food insecurity for millions of Americans.
Amid the upheaval of the last few months, we continue to confront the increasing impact of climate change. Our data demonstrates that the COVID-19 pandemic has not deterred people from considering the relationship between their food choices and the health of our planet. Nearly 6 in 10 consumers say it’s important that the foods they purchase and eat are produced in an environmentally sustainable way. And there are signs that the influence of environmental sustainability may be growing. The share which says it has a real impact on their purchases is up from 27% in 2019 to 34% this year.
Our food safety perceptions
While it is much more broadly understood by the public today that COVID-19 is not transmitted through food, the early days of the pandemic showed significant concern about coronavirus exposure via food handling or food preparation, with nearly half of consumers in April ranking it as one of their top three most important food safety issues.
Consumers’ food safety concerns tend to be greater in settings where they have less direct control. About half (49%) of consumers are at least somewhat concerned about the safety of food prepared outside their homes — such as for takeout or delivery — and 46% are concerned when they eat outside the home — such as in restaurants. Worries about food safety are much lower at home, where only 30% reported being at least somewhat concerned.
And yet, despite widespread coverage of issues like food safety and supply chain disruptions, particularly in the first few months of the pandemic, two-thirds (67%) of people are still confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply, a number that is largely consistent with previous years. Our June survey found that 80% are confident in the ability of food manufacturers to supply enough food to meet the needs of consumers.
Temporary and lasting food changes from COVID-19
When it comes to food, there is no question that the pandemic is forcing us to embrace new eating patterns and reevaluate how we feel about obtaining and preparing our food. But has COVID-19 brought us to a “new normal”? In some areas, like snacking and online grocery shopping, IFIC data shows the pandemic may be accelerating a trend already underway. Other behaviors are likely driven by our increased time at home and reduced mobility, both of which will be heavily influenced by the widespread availability of a vaccine. Future data will show us if what we see today represents any durable change in our attitudes and behaviors toward food.