Last year Time Magazine featured a cover story about fat…specifically that fat has been unfairly vilified and that in fact carbs and sugars are the real danger. They were not the first with the story nor will they be the last. The question is, how will this impact the food products on the market?
The idea that carbs and sugar were the worst things you could eat would not have surprised a dieter in say 1970. It was in the 1980’s that conventional wisdom moved toward the notion that fat caused weight gain and with that heart disease and thus should be avoided. Over time the public came to accept this wisdom (after all the idea that fat causes fat isn’t hard to accept) and the market responded with a bunch of low fat products. Unfortunately those products were higher in sugar and carbs and the net result is that Americans have grown heavier.
If the public buys into this new thinking we should expect the market to respond. To see how well the message has gotten out, we conducted a national survey with two goals in mind:
About a third of respondents said they were aware of the new dietary thinking. While still a minority, a third is nothing to be sneezed at. Especially when you consider that the vast majority of advertising still focus on the low fat message and food nutrition labels still highlight fat calories at the top. It took time for the “low fat” message to take hold and clearly it will take time for this to take hold as well.
Already there is evidence of change. Those aware of the message prior to the survey were far more likely to recommend changes to people’s diets (38%) than those who were not aware prior to the survey (11%). Clearly it takes more than being informed in a survey to change 30 years of conventional wisdom, but once the message takes hole, expect changes. In fact, two thirds of those aware of the message before doing the survey have already made changes to behavior:
This clearly indicates there is already demand for low carb/sugar products AND I suspect that demand will only grow (unless nutritional research changes yet again). With that said it is not as easy as it sounds.
Making choices between fat and carbs is generally easy when it comes to whole foods. For example 85 grams of sirloin steak contains 12 grams of fat but no carbs. Conversely 195 grams of rice contains just 2 grams of fat, but 45 grams of carbohydrates. Other foods such as spinach contain virtually no fat and are also fairly low in carbs (1.1g per 30 gram serving). Of course your local frozen food section of convenience restaurant doesn’t serve many whole foods. So we wanted to understand how choices might change if the decision involves more complicated processed foods.
In general, I believe that choice questions on a survey elicit better data than say rating scales. As such, I constructed a series of choices for respondents to pick between two similar items, one higher in carbs/sugar the other higher in fat. They were free to pick one of the items or neither. In half the cases we told respondents the fat and carb content and in half we did not. Further, half the respondents were informed in advance about the Time Magazine article and half were not.
Our theory was that those aware of the article would choose fattier, lower carb options than those not aware. In reality, we found no evidence of this. The four groups made almost identical choices (within the margin of error anyway). Even those aware in advance of doing the survey made similar choices to those who were not aware. There are several possible reasons for this.
First, taste is a curious thing. People like what they like. While we offered the option to say “none of these”, no doubt some foods, even when we know they are not healthy, are irresistible.
Second, as noted, the choices are complicated. Almost all of the items tested contained a bit of both carbs and fat so even when we provided details the decision was not that clean. I may want to avoid carbs, but if the difference is not stark, I’ll go for taste.
Does this mean that consumer packaged goods firms should simply ignore the new thinking? Clearly not. Thirty years ago “fat free” products tended to be bland and unappetizing, but the market responded with alternative cooking methods and new ingredients to create tasty fat free products. Within the last decade we have seen “gluten free” products go from as a friend of mine described it, “cardboard” to products that mimic or improve upon the original. No doubt the market will do the same for carbs.
To truly test this out we would need to offer the consumer alternatives designed to make a low carb/sugar diet appealing. The best way to do that would be to use a discrete choice design as a new product research method which would allow us to better understand the tradeoffs consumers will make.
Rich brings a passion for quantitative data and the use of choice to understand consumer behavior to his blog entries. His unique perspective has allowed him to muse on subjects as far afield as Dinosaurs and advanced technology with insight into what each can teach us about doing better research.