Consumers aren’t eating as well as they’d like to, and that’s an opportunity for growth in consumer packaged goods (CPG), according to a report from Nielsen, New York.

The gap between intention to eat better and action isn’t from lack of trying. Nearly all (99%) of Americans have purchased a low-fat food or beverage item this year, but households only do so about twice a month. Similarly, U.S. homes are only buying organic, sugar-free and high-protein foods about once a month in each case.

Yet, Americans have bright intentions for the future, and this presents manufacturers and retailers with a golden opportunity to capitalize on this optimism by removing the barriers that separate what people want to eat and drink with what they actually consume.

Two-thirds of Americans say their eating habits have changed over the last five years. That’s a lot of shifting behaviors that could be monetized. But, this change in intention is only valuable if manufacturers and retailers can fulfill consumer intentions with available products. When surveyed about their eating habits today and into the next five years, Americans say they want to eat and live more healthfully. Three in 10 say they are making more healthy food choices than they were a year ago.

And, research confirms that consumers, particularly younger ones, have a new set of expectations for food products.

There’s no single definition for what constitutes healthy food today. And, Millennials have certainly indicated that health is not the sole factor driving changes in eating habits. Millennials are most likely to define healthy eating in practical ways, whereas Boomers, Greatest Generation consumers and even Gen Xers indicate their eating habits are more heavily guided by health maintenance or specific health conditions. For example, Millennials think about healthy eating more holistically than other generations, placing a rising importance in food for the mind. More so than any other cohort, Millennials feel healthy eating isn’t just about nutrition and diet; they believe it extends to mental wellness, stress management and saving both money and time. Millennials are 2-3 times more likely than the older generations to change their eating habits to manage mental health, finances and time.

Consumers, especially Millennials, want to buy foods that work “harder” for them and their lifestyles.

Furthermore, Americans are drinking, not just eating, their snacks, and beverages can help bridge the gap. In fact, beverages are among the top trending consumable categories today. For many consumers, drinks aren’t typically intended to serve as a meal replacement. More so than many other reasons, three in 10 Americans say they are more likely to drink beverages “as a way to revive or sustain energy levels.”

Many companies have already tapped into the potential of value-added beverages. Sales of beverages infused with marijuana, for example, have grown nearly 50% since 2018. Beverage sales are also booming in the digital space, with more consumers opting to shop online, as e-commerce sales of beverages are up 45% in the last year.

Mental health and stress management are another part of what food and beverage products must solve. The future of food is grounded in uniting the health of the body and the mind.

But, even foods that save time or improve mental health must be reasonably priced.

Packaged frozen produce, for example, is well-positioned to capitalize here. Without sacrificing on many health benefits, options like frozen raspberries cost nearly half as much (per pound) as the fresh equivalents and can be stored and used when it suits the end user.

Manufacturers and retailers also have an opportunity to promote the price efficiency of certain fresh meats as healthy protein options. Where trendy and convenient protein sources suit on-the-go consumers, they are sold at 6-12 times the price per gram of chicken, pork and turkey. For the 55% of Americans who prioritize high-protein content when deciding what to buy, this message of protein price accessibility could draw renewed attention to traditional meat-based goods.

One-third of Americans (33%) say they will prioritize price when it comes to what they consume over the next five years. Additionally, 75% of Americans believe it’s important to always get the best price on a product.

For food companies, the message is clear. Price is the dominant driver of food purchases unless they’re given other factors to consider. With the exception of alcoholic beverages, a sizable share of Americans are likely to base their food purchase decisions predominantly on price. The gap between intention and action for healthier eating boils down to how brands can force the consumer habit to consider health-oriented attributes.  

Store brands have made great strides in offering both value and specialized products that tout better-for-you health aspects. In the United States, private label CPG sales have soared to nearly $146 billion in the latest year, and sales are growing at 2 times the rate of name brands. How are they maintaining these trends? To consumers, the value-driven reputation of store brands remains strong, as 67% of Americans agree that store brands are usually an extremely good value for the money. But, at the same time, a look at purchase trends highlights that store brands aligned to better-for-you product attributes have, in some cases, been able to charge a premium and still drive strong growth.

Looking specifically at the food and beverage space, the pace of growth among store brands has been slower this year. While store-brand food and beverage sales were up nearly 5% in 2018, they hover at just 3% above sales of a year ago, which is closer to branded sales growth of 2%. The fact that there’s no commanding growth leader between name brands and store brands in the food and beverage space points to a white space of opportunity for all brands. Both retailers and manufacturers have the potential to be famous for the best execution of a healthy product.

Over the next five years, monitoring sugar intake will also be top-of-mind for 23% of Americans, with lowering sugar and adhering to diabetic diets among the Top 10. Americans want sugar-controlled diets, and companies need to help, not hurt, these habits.

When it comes to the diet that many Americans have self imposed, it’s the foods that will boost and not break these goals that will win by bridging the gap to healthier eating in America.