Background: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has begun a public process to redefine how companies are allowed to use the term "healthy" on food packages. Although the definition is formulated based on the latest consensus in nutrition and epidemiological research, it is also important to understand how consumers define and understand the term if it is to be behaviorally relevant. This research is an exploratory study designed to provide a descriptive account of consumers' perceptions of and beliefs about the meaning of "healthy" food.
Methods: A nationwide U.S. sample of 1,290 food consumers was surveyed in December 2018. Respondents answered 15 questions designed to gauge perceptions of healthy food and to elicit preference for policies surrounding healthy food definitions. Responses are weighted to demographically match the population. Categorical variables have a sampling error of ±2.7%. Exploratory factor analysis is used to determine latent dimensions of health perceptions related to food type.
Results: Consumers were about evenly split on whether a food can be deemed healthy based solely on the foods' nutritional content (52.1% believing as such) or whether there were other factors that affect whether a food is healthy (47.9% believing as such). Consumers were also about evenly split on whether an individual food can be considered healthy (believed by 47.9%) or whether this healthiness is instead a characteristic of one's overall diet (believed by 52.1%). Ratings of individual food products revealed that "healthy" perceptions are comprised of at least three underlying latent dimensions related to animal origin, preservation, and freshness/processing. Focusing on individual macronutrients, perceived healthiness was generally decreasing in a food's fat, sodium, and carbohydrate content and increasing in protein content. About 40% of consumers thought a healthy label implied they should increase consumption of the type of food bearing the label and about 15% thought the label meant they could eat all they wanted.
Conclusions: Results suggest consumer's perceptions of "healthy," which is primarily based on fat content, partially aligns with the FDA definition but also suggest consumers perceive the word as a broader and more nuanced concept that defies easy, uniform definition. Results highlight areas where nutrition education may be needed and suggest disclosures may need to accompany health claims so that consumers know what, precisely, is being communicated.