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Whatever consumers say they're doing when it comes to making food choices, their actual eating habits reveal something very different, according to industry expert Harry Balzer, vice president of the market research firm NPD Group.
Balzer maintains that Americans' eating habits are slow to change and for the most part, any changes are simply extensions of previous trends, according to FoodNavigator-USA.com.
"We change what we talk about more than what we eat. We often mistake our willingness to try something new as a trend -- but it's not, it's just trying something new. People like to think they are being adventurous, but in reality they are just eating the same things over and over," he said at last month's Institute of Food Technologists show in Orlando.
When it comes to the products that appear most frequently in American diets, chicken is at the top of the list, followed by sandwiches. The most popular breakfast items remain coffee and cereals, with yogurt also growing in popularity despite not being a traditional option for breakfast, according to NPD figures.
Food and beverage suppliers can take this opportunity to pinpoint what Americans eat most and to develop new versions of these meals, which can involve new flavors, new added benefits or even new packaging. The true forces behind consumer choice remain convenience, price and freshness, said Balzer, and these are likely to affect the long-term performance of any new products brought onto the market.
"The driving force in the long run is 'can you make my life easier?' And I always say that if you ever forget that, then you're forgetting why you're doing business," Balzer said in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA.com.
"For example, cereal at one time was a convenient, hearty, healthy breakfast. But because of modern-day time constraints, it's just not as convenient as it was perceived to be 20 years ago, primarily because it can't be eaten on the go," he said.
Cereal bars went part of the way to addressing this concern, but consumers need a "fuller" breakfast, he said, noting that one way to make cereal an on-the-go item is to serve it with yogurt instead of milk. This is already being seen in certain restaurants, but the key is to market the product as a cereal rather than as a yogurt.
And when it comes to sandwiches, which have seen "outstanding growth," the opportunity is to make the ingredients fresh, according to Balzer, who added, "Fresh is becoming more and more important in the marketplace today, and it is almost at odds with processed foods. But this doesn't need to be the case."
In his concluding remarks, Balzer stressed the importance of:
-- Taste: "Which takes generations to change;"
-- New products: "But don't mistake this for a trend;"
-- Convenience: "We've always moved towards making our lives easier;" and
-- Cost: "We've never let food costs rise faster than our incomes."