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Industry Viewpoint: Exploring fruit and vegetable eating habits

By
Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, president and CEO of Produce for Better Health

Motivation is a big word. Not only because it is four syllables, but also because it’s the basis for everything that we do. As our own Acting Chief Behavioral Scientist Dr. Jason Riis would say, behavior is a result of what individuals know, feel and do. Most Americans believe fruits and vegetables provide health benefits; in fact, the majority of consumers report wanting to eat more produce. But if what they are thinking and feeling does not give way to action… that’s problematic for consumption.

Case in point: Fruit and vegetable aficionados (those who consume them daily or almost every day) say that they encounter the same challenges and practical barriers lamented by those who consume them on fewer days. In fact, those who enjoy produce six to seven days per week, and report the highest levels of associated happiness, say that sometimes fruits and vegetables don’t agree with them or that they can’t eat them due to physical limitations (e.g., arthritis, dental health). They also say that, logistically, they are challenged with not being able to find fruits and vegetables that everyone in the household agrees on or likes and often don’t know how to prepare them in appealing ways. Yet, they eat them most, if not all, days of the week, indicating that these barriers can be overcome by those committed to a healthy lifestyle and positive outlook.

Our most recent edition of State of the Plate Research explored the perceptions and underlying motivations for eating fruits and vegetables and compared various frequency levels of eaters. We studied high, medium and light or low frequency consumers and separated fruit consumers from vegetable consumers, to more comprehensively understand their different motivations. Afterall, if we’re committed to improving fruit and vegetable consumption in America, we must start with understanding the disparities that come along with it.

What we know about consumption frequency
Twenty-six percent of individuals do not eat any fruit over the course of the week. Let’s take a second to ponder that. More than one-quarter of all people living in the U.S. do not have eating patterns that include fruit. Of those who do consume fruit, the majority have one or fewer eating occasions that include fruit daily. We call these light or low frequency eaters. Conversely, about 9 percent of the population can be classified as high frequency fruit eaters — with 12 or more occasions per week — and these eaters are responsible for about one-third of total fruit consumption. On a positive note, only 5 percent of the population does not eat vegetables at least once during a given week. Similarly to fruit, 55 percent are light or low frequency eaters with one or fewer eating occasions per day. High frequency vegetable eaters make up 15 percent of the population and, again, are eating one-third of all veggies consumed.

What we know about motivation to eat fruits and vegetables
Overall, consumers share that the top three motivators for eating fruits and vegetables are health, ease and enjoyment. The sequence varies based on whether asked about fruits or vegetables. For instance, Americans say that they eat fruit for health and nutrition first (34 percent of eating occasions), followed by ease (33 percent) and “it’s a favorite” (28 percent). On the other hand, reasons for consuming vegetables begin with “it’s a favorite” (29 percent), followed by ease (25 percent) and, finally, healthfulness (22 percent). Those consuming fruits and vegetables with higher frequency tend to have greater desire and ability to plan. Motivation to consume more generally increases with age.

Light or low fruit eaters report that they seek out nutrition benefits in foods (44 percent) and check the label to avoid certain ingredients (43 percent). Additionally, 34 percent of them report “knowing more about nutrition than most” — a prime example of how knowledge does not guarantee action. Medium fruit eaters also say that they check the label to avoid certain ingredients, but at a higher rate than light eaters (53 percent). They are willing to pay higher prices (47 percent) and report having trouble sticking to exercise goals (35 percent). Heavy fruit eaters agree with the statement that “thin is more attractive” (44 percent); say that they know more about nutrition than most (38 percent); and report not getting enough exercise (34 percent).

Light fruit eaters list their top motivation for breakfast and lunch as time and ease. Dinner is focused on enjoyment. The priority for snacks and meal replacements are that they are healthy/nutritious. Medium fruit eaters prioritize health and nutrition for breakfast and snacks, but say that lunch, dinner, and meal replacements need to be quick and easy. High frequency fruit eaters prioritize health and nutrition for breakfast, dinner, and meal replacements and say that lunch and snacks must be quick and easy to get or make.

Light or low frequency vegetable eaters admit to the disconnect, saying that they know how to eat well, but don’t (60 percent). They also report that convenience (41 percent) and taste (38 percent) are most important. Medium vegetable eaters say that dinner in less than 30 minutes (32 percent) and convenience (31 percent) are most important. High frequency vegetable eaters are focused on maintaining a healthy lifestyle (44 percent) and seeking out nutrition benefits (38 percent).

Light or low frequency vegetable eaters rank enjoyment as the No. 1 motivation at mealtime, but that snacks must be able to be consumed quickly and meal replacements should be quick and easy to get or make. Medium vegetable eaters also say that choosing their favorites is key at mealtime. They say that snacks should be quick and easy and that meal replacements should be able to be consumed quickly. Finally, high frequency vegetable eaters prioritize health and nutrition for all meals and snacks and say that meal replacements should be quick and easy to get or make. One interesting insight regarding vegetable eaters —  light eaters say that taste is most important, but that “good for you tastes bad.” This seems to be a great opportunity for intervention.

Doing Is key
Of course, all things equal, the strongest influencing agent of whether people will eat fruits and vegetables comes down to what people actually do. Do represents the habits we establish over time and is heavily influenced by whether an action is perceived to be easy, or not.

Behavior is influenced by whether individuals feel that they have the support and ease to do what’s best for their health. The State of the Plate consumers said they are trying to find new menu ideas (31 percent for both fruits and vegetables); stay within budget (30 percent for both fruits and vegetables); plan healthy meals (29 percent for vegetables and 30 percent for fruit); and find meals quickly (26 percent for both fruits and vegetables).

It’s time to demand something different
We know that any way you look at it, the majority of Americans aren’t consuming enough fruits and vegetables. Further, they are consuming them less often than they were in 2004. Is this level of consumption likely to change? Well, we know that over one-half of adults say they are making an effort to eat more fruits and vegetables, yet overall motivation to eat more fruits and vegetables remained unchanged between 2015-2020.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, we know we must act differently if we truly want to change fruit and vegetable eating behaviors. We must develop innovative demand creation strategies that go beyond sales as the definition of consumption. We must keep the consumer at the center of consumption efforts to create meaningful change. We might even need to change our own habits.

Stay tuned for news on how we can be the change — starting with how the Federal government, and other health and food sectors, can prioritize fruit and vegetable promotion and support consumers to do the same.

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