Around the world, consumers are increasingly opting for specialized diets that address their desire to eat organic, low-fat, low-carb or eliminate ingredients based on food sensitivities, allergies or personal convictions. In fact, approximately two-thirds of the respondents (64%) in Nielsen’s new “Global Health and Ingredient-Sentiment Survey” said they follow a diet that limits or prohibits consumption of at least some foods or ingredients; response rates in Africa/Middle East (84%) and Asia-Pacific (72%) were higher than global average. Two-thirds of global consumers (68%) said they were willing to pay more for foods without undesirable ingredients.

“Consumers want to eat in ways that address real dietary concerns, but they can’t do it alone. They need help from food manufacturers to offer products formulated with an eye toward food sensitivities and other specialized diets, and they need help from retailers to stock shelves with a proper assortment of foods that cater to a wider variety of consumer needs,” says Andrew Mandzy, director, strategic insights, The Nielsen Co., New York. “This is a significant opportunity for food retailers and manufacturers, but even within individual markets, health and wellness is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Retailers and manufacturers need to identify high-potential segments and the drivers of engagement for these consumers and then tailor their messages and products accordingly.”

Key drivers of these eating trends include:

Food sensitivities on the rise. More than one-third (36%) of global survey respondents say they or someone in their household have an allergy or intolerance to one or more foods. Dairy or lactose and shellfish allergies are the most common self-reported food allergies or intolerances, each cited by 12% of global respondents.

Regional dietary preferences. Dietary restrictions are higher than the average due to both cultural and religious customs in both Africa/Middle East and in Asia-Pacific. More than eight in 10 African/Middle Eastern respondents (84%) follow a special diet that limits their consumption of selected foods, with Halal being the most commonly cited diet (48%). Respondents in Asia-Pacific are also more likely than the global average to say they follow a special diet (72%) and most likely to adhere to a vegetarian diet (19% vs 14% globally). Nielsen retail sales data suggests that many North American and European consumers are cutting back on foods that are high in fat, sugar and sodium. Half of North American respondents say they follow a special diet, followed by 44% of European respondents.

Food as medicine. Seventy percent of global respondents said they actively make dietary choices to help prevent health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol or hypertension.