How the “Better-for-You” Food Trend Impacts Consumers and Brands

Mar 11, 2020

It’s no secret: many consumers are trying to live healthier these days. To do that, they’re paying a lot more attention to what they eat and drink, how food and beverage products are made, and the quality of ingredients that go into them.

In our latest industry study of 7,000 consumers spanning four generations—Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers—we found that:

  • Health is just as important as value to consumers when shopping for food and beverage products.
  • 56% of consumers read ingredient lists.
  • Half (51%) of consumers say that quality of ingredients is an important factor in choosing healthy products, second only to taste and flavor (67%).

But when it comes to the healthier products themselves, how exactly should brands convey that message in a label? For example, is “better for you” the most effective hook? Does it offer the clearest meaning? If food and beverage brands want to introduce and market a better-for-you product, how can they be confident they’ll hit home with the right audience?

The better-for-you trend in food and beverage products, along with the various claims that labels make, offers rich fodder to learn about perceptions and expectations as consumers strive to make healthier choices at the shelves. To understand this trend, we used quantitative, qualitative, and behavioral research that combines respondents’ voices (captured on video and from open-ended questions) with survey and behavioral data to build a 360-degree view of consumers in this space.

Here’s what we found.

“Better for you” means a lot of things

It turns out the “better for you” term means different things to different people. Generally, the term invokes a “healthier” connotation for most consumers, but others have developed more specific associations with it, such as “low in sugar,” “low in calories,” “natural,” or “less processed.”

Consumer perceptions around a term are one thing, but what happens when they encounter that name in the marketplace? Healthy product labels do reinforce some opinions, such as products that make claims of “low or no sugar” and “natural.” But a slew of other claims can also be attached to the label, including “organic,” “non-GMO,” and “low or no fat.”

No matter how they’re perceived or marketed, better-for-you products are purchased by 65% of consumers, showing that the concept holds widespread appeal.

Some claims are more important than others

“Protein” (39%), “low or no sugar” (37%), “natural” (36%), and “no artificial flavors, preservatives, or sweeteners” (35%) top the list of specific better-for-you claims that are most likely to resonate with consumers and lead them to purchase.

However, not every “healthy” indicator makes the cut – we found that “probiotics” (20%), how a product addresses a specific health condition (19%), “plant-based protein” (15%), “no allergens” (14%), and “lactose-free” (13%) aren’t as important for consumers.

It’s a generational thing

While the study indicated that some better-for-you claims are more important than others, we did note that those rankings are highly dependent on age.

Among Gen Z consumers, the youngest cohort in our study, only three better-for-you claims—”lactose-free,” “plant-based proteins,” and “vegan”—stood out as the most important to them.

For Millennials, the number of important claims increased to four, and included:

  • Protein
  • Minerals
  • Plant-based protein
  • Lactose-free

Gen X consumers doubled the size of the Millennials’ list with eight important claims. Somewhat surprisingly, every single one differed from Gen Z and Millennials:

  • Low/no sugar
  • No artificial add-ins
  • Low/no sodium
  • Non-GMO
  • High in fiber, prebiotics, or whole grains
  • Locally grown
  • No cholesterol
  • Probiotics

Interestingly, the preferences of Baby Boomers, the oldest cohort in our study, were almost identical to Gen X. The only claim they cared about less than that group were “probiotics.”

How brands can approach the better-for-you trend

Given the context we uncovered around better-for-you labeling, what can you take away from these findings if you’re a food and beverage brand to help inform your product innovation and marketing efforts?

For one, Millennials represent the biggest growth opportunity in this space. 71% percent of consumers in this generation are already buying better-for-you products (41% say some food and beverage products they purchased in the last month were better-for-you, and 30% say most were better-for-you).

Based on the behavioral data we gathered, targeting Millennials should also include clear information and messaging around:

  • The environment. Millennials are the most conscious of the environment out of the four generations studied.
  • Product ingredients. Along with Gen X, Millennials are most likely to read ingredients lists.
  • Healthy lifestyles. Millennials are twice as likely to actively be on a diet.
  • Sports and activities. Millennials are regular runners, joggers, and gym-goers, and they enjoy participating in outdoor sports.

Where and how you reach Millennials with targeted ads matters too. Millennials can be found watching TV channels that have to do with babies and kids, which suggests they’re in the middle of raising families. And they’re more likely to peruse books and magazines that are focused on entertainment, food, and cooking.

But Millennials certainly aren’t the only cohort that presents an opportunity in this space. Baby Boomers are interested in reducing their sugar and sodium intake, along with cutting back on artificial add-ins. Brands may want to consider strengthening their positions in these areas specifically to resonate further with Baby Boomers and capture a larger share of this audience.

Tapping the best of both worlds to grow your brand

As the healthier-eating movement evolves, consumer perceptions and expectations around product labels and claims will undoubtedly change as well. To grow your brand and stay competitive in this environment, you’ll need to combine survey data (the “why” and the “what”) with big data (the “who” and the “how”) to gain actionable insights into your target consumer.

If the better-for-you food trend continues on its current trajectory, you can stay one step ahead by not only developing the right products, but also ensuring you’re reaching the right consumers in the right places with the most effective labeling and messaging.

Reach out and schedule a call with our team to hear additional insights from our full report. We can also share more about GutCheck’s research solutions and how we partner with industry leaders around the world to help them better understand and appeal to consumers in their target markets.

Want to stay up to date latest GutCheck blog posts?

Follow us on

Check Out Our Most Recent Blog Posts