- This pandemic has left its mark on eating and drinking habits, according to the International Food Information Council (IFIC). One in three consumers said they ate healthier in 2020, IFIC found. Those under the age of 45 were most likely to make more healthful choices, according to the research.
- At the same time, the eating habits of 19% of those surveyed became less healthy during the past year. Women were 14 points more likely than men to tip toward indulgence. More than one in five consumers overall admitted to stress eating during the pandemic, while one in four turned to comfort foods.
- Many consumers sought out energy boosters, with 28% drinking more caffeinated beverages. And while 22% drank more alcohol — with men and younger consumers more likely to imbibe — roughly the same amount tried to cut back on booze. The results of the IFIC survey reveal consumers' efforts to balance competing impulses and the depth of their excitement and uncertainty about 2021.
Stress has a powerful effect on what people eat and drink. Sheltering in place, pandemic fears and economic uncertainty have pressed different and at times competing impulses — eating healthy but also indulging, gaining energy during the day but then trying to relax at night.
The coronavirus has made immunity-boosting and health a focus for many individuals. IFIC’s annual Food & Health Survey, which was conducted in April, found about one in five consumers said they were making healthier choices than usual because of the pandemic. One of these is plant-based options, which had been growing pre-COVID thanks to the "health halo" of these foods and beverages. The segment was top of mind for consumers, with 22% hearing about it in the past year, according to the recent IFIC research.
Grocers and meal kit companies have responded to the growing interest in healthier meal options and prepared foods. Kroger has expanded its plant-based private label options this year, while meal kit companies like Blue Apron and Freshly are adding healthier menu items that are easy to prep.
Similarly, more than one-fifth of consumers overall said they drank more functional beverages, with men and those younger than 45 years old more likely to increase their consumption.
The pandemic's normalization of working from home and remote schooling also have challenged many consumers' energy reserves. This has pushed many people to turn to caffeinated beverages for an extra boost. A June 2020 beverage market outlook by Packaged Facts projected strong growth for coffee and energy drinks for the year.
Financial hardships brought on by the pandemic has piled on top of consumers' health fears and socialization curbs. Despite the unemployment rate ticking down to 6.7% in November, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10.7 million Americans remain on unemployment. And any remaining government aid is set to end just after Christmas. The turmoil is reflected in IFIC's survey, where 19% said they made different food choices during the past year because of financial pressures. Looking to the year ahead, 28% of the consumers were worried about being able to afford enough food.
This has made alcohol a key part of relaxation and stress-relief for many consumers. Total off-premise alcohol sales were up about 24% during the pandemic, and spirit sales surged more than 27% from the previous year, according to Nielsen data cited by NPR.
The IFIC survey also provides a look at how consumers will respond after the pandemic has abated. People were most excited about eating with friends and family more often and not worrying about the coronavirus when shopping or eating out. That said, the slow, staggered rollout of the vaccines and ongoing financial uncertainty are likely to curb many consumers’ instincts to fully indulge.
The results suggest that despite the incredible promise of a post-COVID world, consumers will have a tough time shaking off the stress from the past year. And the trial of new healthy, energy-enhancing and relaxation options could give those segments continued stamina in the year ahead.