In the last year, significant numbers of Americans have changed their minds or behaviors around food and nutrition issues, with the media being a top driver of those changes, according to “Food Decision 2016: The Impact of a Growing National Food Dialogue,” a 2016 Food and Health Survey conducted and released by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, Washington, D.C.

“2016 is a big decision-making year for Americans,” said says Kimberly Reed, president. “Not only do we have an upcoming presidential election involving more conversations with new voters, emerging technologies and changing demographics, [but] we also see more factors influencing Americans’ food decisions. Our 11th annual survey shows that the food dialogue has gained momentum over the past year, with factors [such as] health status, gender, income, education and age influencing Americans’ views on the food they eat.”

The survey asked whether Americans’ opinions had changed about a number of dietary components. An average of 31% changed their minds about at least one of them, for better or worse. In most cases, media headlines and articles were at or near the top of the sources that altered consumers’ opinions.

The media was also a top source that caused a less healthful view of enriched refined grains, saturated fat, added sugars and low-calorie sweeteners. Whole grains, protein from plant sources and natural sugars were among the dietary components that gained a more healthful opinion from consumers based on media headlines.

Americans also want to know more about their food and are changing their behaviors based on what they learn. According to the survey, 44% read a book or article or watched a movie or documentary examining the food system and/or commonly held beliefs about diet. About one-quarter of Americans either changed their food purchasing decisions (26%) or engaged with friends, family or co-workers (23%) based on what they read or viewed.

“Healthy” vs. “natural”
This year, 47% of Americans said they look at the ingredients list on foods or beverage packages when deciding what to purchase, up from 40% in 2015.

When Americans define what makes a food healthy, it’s becoming more about what isn’t in a food rather than what is in it. For example, 35% of Americans define a “healthy” food as one that does not contain (or has low levels) of certain components such as fat and sugar, the top response when asked in an open-ended question. When given a list of attributes that describe a “healthy eating style,” 51% of consumers chose “the right mix of different foods,” followed by “limited or no artificial ingredients or preservatives” (41%). However, it should be noted that just 2% of consumers identified limited or no artificial ingredients or preservatives as a top consideration when not given a list.

“Moderation/serving size and portions” topped the open-ended responses (26%) for healthy eating styles, followed by “includes certain foods I define as healthy” (25%). The definitions of healthy and natural foods are also being conflated. According to the survey, “natural” food is most often associated with having no preservatives or additives (29%), having ingredients that come straight from nature and whole foods (19%) or having no artificial ingredients or flavors (17%).

How Americans are trying to get healthier
According to the survey, 57% of Americans are trying to lose weight, with 23% trying to lose up to 10 pounds and 34% trying to lose 10 or more pounds. Seventy-eight percent of Americans said they were likely to be more active throughout the day to help with their weight management, and 72% would spend more time exercising.

One-quarter of Americans have changed their diets in the past year, most notably by eating more fruits and vegetables, making “small changes” and drinking water or low- and no-calorie beverages—although those who were already in better health were more likely to report positive changes than other respondents.

Local = trustworthy
If food is grown regionally or served at a local establishment, consumers are more likely to trust the safety of that food. More than 70% of consumers trust the safety of food produced in their region of the country, while just 24% trust the safety of food from another country. Consumers were also more likely to trust the safety of food from a local restaurant vs the safety of food from a national chain restaurant (55% and 49%, respectively).

Other highlights:
• Similar to previous years, 57% describe themselves as being in very good or excellent health. However, those views are often at odds with health status as judged by body mass index (BMI). Out of those describing themselves as being in very good health, 51% are actually overweight and 33% are obese. Of those describing themselves in excellent health, 11% are overweight and 6% are obese.

• Regardless of where Americans might actually be getting their information, the most trusted sources for information about what types of food to eat were registered dietitian/nutritionists (RDN) (70%), “your personal healthcare professional” (65%) and U.S. government agencies (37%). The same three groups topped the list of trusted sources for information about food safety, with RDNs trusted by 70%, followed by a personal healthcare professional (57%) and U.S. government agencies (52%). The 52% who trust the U.S. government for food safety information is a sharp increase over the 42% who gave the same response in 2015.

• One-third of Americans (33%) on an average day report spending 15 minutes or less eating dinner, while 54% spend between 15-30 minutes and 13% spend 30 minutes or more.

• Thirty-seven percent report limiting or avoiding packaged foods, with about one-third of those people citing artificial ingredients or preservatives (32%) or extra sugar, fat and salt (31%) as reasons why.

• Ninety-four percent of adults say they consume caffeine, with 69% of them saying they know the amount of caffeine they consume—up from 64% in 2015.