Today’s Food Trends: Are Consumers Eating to live…Or Living to Eat?

Dianne Morris, PhD, RD
President, Mainstream Nutrition
Reprinted from Smoke Signals, volume XI, number 6, December 2000, pages 25-30


This article was originally presented at the International Bison Conference in August 2000 in Edmonton. Dianne discusses trends in the North American food consumer’s buying habits. She relates how bison can fit into the diet of many consumers especially when it is presented and marketed properly.

Today's consumers are unlike any generation of humans who has lived before: They are both eating to live...and living to eat. In other words, in North America at the beginning of the 21st century, most consumers have the luxury of not merely scrabbling and hunting for food-a matter of life or death for many people living today and for all humans until this point in time-today's consumers also enjoy the luxury of living to eat. These behaviors lie at the heart of four major food trends today: taste, convenience, health and "eatertainment." Each of these trends has a strong influence on nutrient intake and dietary patterns and deserves close monitoring by the bison industry.

Canadians have improved their eating habits, according to the first comprehensive survey of Canadian eating patterns conducted in 25 years. McGill University researchers report that in the typical Canadian diet, about 30% of total energy is derived from fat a decrease from 40% in the 1970's. Thus, Canadians are eating less fat than they did 25 years ago. However, there is room for improvement. Some adults, for example, are not eating the recommended number of servings specified in Canada's Food Guide for Health Eating. About 45-50% of women of all ages and 33% of men aged 35-49 years do not eat two servings of meat/alternates daily. About 50% of all men and women under the age of 50 do not eat the recommended minimum 5 servings of vegetables and fruit daily {Gray-Donald et al. 1999).

U.S. consumers report that diet and nutrition is important to them, but they also struggle with so-called healthy eating. According to a survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association (2000), 28% of U.S. consumers claim they have already made significant adjustments in their eating habits, while 40% claim they know they should be eating a healthy diet but aren't. About 32% of U.S. consumers can't be bothered with healthy eating. Like their Canadian counterparts, most U.S. consumers don't eat the recommended number of fruits and vegetables daily.

The dietary patterns of Canadian and U.S. consumers reflect their current attitudes, beliefs and desires toward food and eating. The busy, harried lifestyles of today's consumers also influence food choices and eating behaviors.

Trend Number 1-Taste Leads the Way

Taste is the number one reason why consumers choose a particular food. Taste consistently outranks their concern about the food's cost or nutritional quality, as shown in Table 1. Most consumers associate taste with freshness, wholesomeness, and nutrition, especially regarding fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meats (Dietitians of Canada 1998). Consumers also believe that taste is the main barrier to improving their diets, they don't want to give up their favorite "good-tasting" (and often high-fat) foods (American Dietetic Association 2000).

The food industry has responded to consumer demand for taste with new products that offer something for everyone’s sweet, salty, bitter, and sour taste sensations.

Consumer desire for novel tastes has changed their purchasing patterns

The most popular lunch/dinner entree was steak in 1987, whereas pizza was ranked number one in 1996 (Sloan 1998). Why the change ? Pizza lends itself well to taste temptations, whether the topping is pepperoni or goat cheese, roasted bell peppers, wild mushrooms, and sun dried tomatoes.

Table 1. Importance of Factors that Influence Food Choices1

Attribute % who report the 
attribute is important
Taste 98
Nutrition and health 89
Ease of preparation 68
Preparation time 66
Price 62
Weight control or dieting 55
1Source: Speaking of Food and Eating Survey, 1997


Trend Number 2-Convenience

Consumers have a message for the food industry: Make it easy, make it fast. The convenience trend has remained strong over the last decade, driving the growth of new food products and services. Consumer desire for convenience is due, in part, to the need for two incomes, the movement of women into the workplace, and a decrease in the amount of time people have for housework and cooking (Sloan 1998). Today's consumers are starved for time and believe their lives are hectic, stressful, and complicated, especially if there are children in the household (McMahon and Cameron 1998). They are looking for accessible, easy-to-prepare foods.

Convenience Foods

Convenience foods remain popular with consumers. The less food preparation and fuss, the better, hence, the continued rise in "speed-scratch cooking," pre-assembled dinners (e.g., enchilada entrees with tortillas and sauce), and cooking aids such as marinated canned beans and bottled marinades, gravies, and sauces. Perhaps the ultimate convenience product is Nabisco's Oreo Crunchies@, 100% crumbled oreo cookies for consumers who don't have time to crumble their own! US households with children aged 17 years and younger tend to buy pre-cut, cleaned and bagged salads, frozen side dishes, frozen main dishes, pre-cut plain or marinated meat or poultry, and sandwiches or pizza to go. Ease of preparation is very important for families with children (Food Marketing Institute 1998). This is one area where the bison industry can gain market share by providing convenient and partially pre-cooked cuts of bison.

Speed and Feed

Canadians are snackers, with about two-thirds of Canadians enjoying snacks every day (Dietitians of Canada 1998). About 76% of U.S. consumers snack every day (Katz 1998). The snacking trend has become so strong that the lines between snack foods and regular foods have blurred. Some traditional snack foods such as popcorn and French fries have become meal-type foods, while some regular foods like muffins, beef jerky, and cheese have become snack foods (Pszczola 1998a).


Take-out foods have become a necessity, not a luxury, for many families. Consumers who enjoy take-out and dining out are a diverse group: busy parents, older adults and empty- nesters, the "too tired to cook" consumers, urban professionals, and "flavour cravers". About 80% of the take-out business derives from consumers who purchase some form of take-out food nearly every day (National Restaurant Association 1998).

Supermarkets are also getting in on the act, providing "meal replacements" and breakfast bars for their on-the-go customers. According to the Food Market Institute's 1997 consumer attitudes and behavior survey, one in five consumers says that their supermarket is their main source of take-out, ready-prepared foods for home consumption (McMahon and Cameron 1998).

Trend Number 3 Focus on Health

Canadians are choosing more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat foods (National Institute of Nutrition 1997). The key nutrition trends in the health arena are described in the following sections.

Low-fat foods

The low-fat food revolution continues. According to a survey by the Calorie Control Council, 90% of adults consume low- calorie, reduced-fat, or fat-free foods and beverages on a regular basis. The typical "light" consumer is likely to be a woman, better educated (93% have a high school education, compared with 82% of non-light consumers), and have a higher income (56% of light consumers compared with 41% of non-light consumers make more than $30,000/year). More-over, the typical light consumer is not on a diet, but instead is trying to eat an overall healthier diet (Calorie Control Council 1998). The most popular reduced-fat products are low-fat or skim milk, reduced-fat salad dressings, sauces, and mayonnaise, reduced-fat cheeses and dairy products, reduced-fat margarine, and reduced-fat chips and other snack foods (Calorie Control Council 1998b).

Bison is low in fat compared with some other meat, poultry and pork choices. Three ounces (85 g) of cooked, roasted bison provides about 2 g of total fat. The total fat content of a comparable 3 oz. serving of cooked beef (separable lean only) is 8.4 g. One-half of a roasted chicken breast (meat only) provides 3.1 g total fat, and 3 oz. of broiled pork chop (boneless, separable lean only) provides 6.6 g total fat (USDA 2000).

Fresh foods

Consumers demand fresh, wholesome foods. Forty-three percent of Canadian consumers, for example, reported eating more fruits and vegetables as part of their effort to eat a healthy diet (National Institute of Nutrition 1997).

Functional foods

In one sense, all foods are "functional" in that they provide taste, nutrients, and even comfort. Health Canada (1998) is the first government agency to propose defining the terms "functional food" and "neutraceutical." The agency proposes to define "functional food" as a food consumed as part of a usual diet that has particular health benefits or that may reduce the risk of chronic disease. A "neutraceutical" would be defined as a product isolated or purified from a functional food. For consumers, functional foods are food boosters, foods that have special health benefits over and above their traditional nutrient content. In the U.S., sales of functional foods were about $14.2 billion in 1999 (Sloan 2000). Examples of neutraceutical ingredients are shown in Table 2 and include anthocyanins (pigments responsible for the blue colour of blueberries), isoflavones found in soy products, lycopene in tomatoes and other foods, and tea polyphenols (Pszczola 1998b). Functional foods include oats, soy, flaxseed, garlic, broccoli and cruciferous vegetables, citrus fruits, wine and grapes, fish and dairy products (Hasler 1998). Beef can also be considered a functional food because it contains conjugated linoleic acid, a group of compounds with powerful anticancer properties (Ip et al. 1994).

Table 2. Neutraceutical Ingredients

Anthocyanins Lycopene
Beta-carotene Milk fat
Calcium Omega-3 fatty acids
Vitamin E Coenzyme Q
Folic acid Fibre
Garlic Selenium
Herbal extracts Tea polyphenols
Isoflavones (soy) Plant sterols


Organic and natural foods

The size of the organic food industry has risen dramatically in recent years. In 1980, for example, the industry had about $78 million in retail sales. In 1990, sales had increased to about $1 billion, and in 1999, to about $4.2 billion. Sales of so-called natural foods were $25.4 billion in 1999 in the U.S. (Sloan 2000). In the U.S., the Agricultural Marketing Service has proposed establishing a national organic program that would formulate national standards to govern the growth and marketing of organically-produced foods (Agricultural Marketing Service 1997). According to a recent proposed rule, organic foods cannot include genetically modified organisms (Agricultural Marketing Service 2000). Consumers continue to value foods labeled "organic" and "natural" for their perceived freshness, wholesomeness, and lack of chemical residues and pesticides.

Concerns of U.S. consumers about food safety are shown in Table 3. For the bison industry, consumer concern about animal drug residues and growth hormones are leading issues that must be addressed to assure consumers about the safety of bison meat.

Food Safety1


No problem
Serious problem



Pesticide residue



Animal drug residues



Growth hormones



Food additives









Naturally-occurring toxins



1Source: Food Technology 1999;53:52-55.


Foods for the "not so healthy"

The Baby Boomers, those people born between 1946 and 1964, are expected to be a leading market force in the next 30 years. Many aspects of today's current health trends reflect their concerns about cancer, high blood cholesterol, insomnia, menopause, overweight and obesity, arthritis, memory loss, and depression. The "not so healthy" movement stems from the boomers' anxiety about growing old.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Angus Reid Group (2000), more than two-thirds of Canadian adults take some form of nutritional supplement. Roughly 60% take a vitamin supplement, about 25% take a mineral supplement, and 28% reported using herbal preparations. One in three US adults uses some form of alternative and complementary medicine, be it acupuncture, aroma therapy or dietary supplements. Sales of herbal preparations in the U.S. increased 380% between 1990 and 1997 (Eisenberg et al. 1998).

The food and pharmaceutical industries have been investing in the "not so healthy" movement since the early 1990's. The functional food and nutraceutical activity in this area has focused on projects and products related to cardiovascular diseases, cancer, cholesterol, osteoporosis, diabetes, and hyptertension (Sloan 1999). The bison industry may be able to position itself in this area. A recent animal study found that the aortic fatty streak area was significant1y lower in hamsters fed ground bison compared with those fed soy protein or casein for 8 weeks. The aortic fatty streak area is an indicator of early atherosclerosis (Wilson et al. 2000). Human studies are needed to confirm and elaborate on this finding.

Trend Number 4 Food as Entertainment

The newest food trend-food as entertainment or "eatertainment," as it is sometimes called-may have serious consequences for the health and nutritional status of today's children and youth. Here, consumers are looking for entertainment from the usual venues, sports, movies, books, computer games, and shopping malls, for example, plus restaurants and now foods. The Rainforest Cafe has rocketed in popularity because it offers decent food and fake, computerized boa constrictors, baboons, and parrots (Ross 1998). At the supermarket, new food products aimed mainly at children offer fun and adventure. Consider Quaker Oats' new Dino Eggs@ cereal, just add boiling water, stir, and watch the dino eggs hatch into stegosaurus and triceratops babies.

This trend may have major, longterm implications for food and nutrient intake among children, because the focus is almost exclusively on the pleasure of eating (to have fun), while the purpose of eating (to ensure an optimal intake of essential nutrients and other compounds that benefit health) is virtually ignored. Today's young people appear to be more enticed by fun, novel taste sensations and weird and wonderful packaging than by a food's nutrient content and contribution to health. As one food writer put it, "Remember the Mom test: If it's yucky to her, it's got real potential in the kids market" (Hollingsworth 2000).

The impact of this trend may already be emerging. Be- tween 1991 and 1996, Canadian children aged 8-15 years consumed fewer servings of grains, vegetables and fruits than recommended by the Food Guide for Healthy Eat- ing. They consumed on average more than 7 servings daily of fats, oils, sweets and desserts (Lemke et al. 1998). These findings suggest that even young children are gI"avitating toward high-fat snack and convenience foods and are choosing dietary patterns that are likely to compromise their nutritional intake long-term. For food marketers, however, young children are a potential goldmine. The average 6-year-old shops about three times a week, in- cluding one trip to the grocery store, and in 1999, nearly 50% of all children regularly prepared meals for them- selves! Many Canadian and U.S. kids have both money and time for food shopping (Hollingsworth 2000).

What Consumers Want

Consumers want "food solutions." They want better (that is, farm fresh) foods, quicker foods that go from the refrigerator or pantry to the table in minutes, easier foods to prepare and cook, and healthier foods for a longer life. Many of today's Canadian and U.S. consumers have the best of both worlds: They both eat to live and live to eat! Current consumer attitudes and behaviors offer a wealth of opportunity for the bison industry.

The fat market refers to all of your potential customers who don't want or need your products right now, but will buy them eventually. The thin market refers to those people who are ready to buy your product right now. At any given time there are people moving from your fat market into your thin market. Obviously both of these markets must be addressed in your advertising. Which market is more important to you? The answer is your fat market.

People in the fat market are in the process of accumulating the information they will use to make buying decisions further down the road. They are therefore the easiest to target for your message.

I have on many occasions expressed the belief that positioning is the single most important function of a business. You will either get positioning and that will give you the opportunity to win or you will not get positioning and will be guaranteed to lose.

Positioning is defined as "top of the mind recognition." Top of mind recognition means you are the first one the customer in your fat market thinks of. Obviously if you are not the first one they think of they won't be coming to your ranch first.

Positioning is about your fat market. It is about influencing all those people in your fat market with constant spaced repetitive advertising so that they think of you when they slip into your thin market. Constant spaced repetition is the only human learning system. Be in their face over and over if you want them to remember you when they are ready to buy. Being in their face is about "hits," the number of times the people in your fat market see your name, logo and message.

This thin market is your window of opportunity for immediate sales. People in your thin market have already gathered all the information they need to decide who they are going to deal with. Certainly you can hope to attract those thin market people with a last minute ad but it usually doesn't work. Many of us have put in what we thought were great ads expecting 100 people to show up next week and nothing happened. That is because the thin market people made up their minds as to who they were going to deal with while they were in the fat market.

Obviously, if you manage your fat market effectively the thin market will eventually look after itself. That's one of the secrets of building a successful business.

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