Conventional Wisdom Doesn't 'Checkout'

By Lindsey Foss, Iowa Food & Family Project

As consumers’ education levels and household income increase, so too does their trust in modern agriculture and today’s food system, says our latest Consumer Pulse Survey. In contrast, Iowans with less disposable income report being more concerned with how and where their food is grown.

The annual poll, administered last month, surveyed more than 400 Iowans ages 18 and older who are the primary food purchasers for their household. Now in its sixth year, the Consumer Pulse Survey gauges consumers’ food preferences, tracks shopping habits and keeps in touch with Iowans’ overall confidence in Iowa agriculture.

“The Consumer Pulse Survey provides perspectives that challenge conventional wisdom as it relates to interacting with consumers about food topics,” said Aaron Putze, director of communications at the Iowa Soybean Association, a partner of the Iowa Food & Family Project (Iowa FFP). “One would assume that with increased income and education comes greater discernment over food choices. At the macro level, this survey shows that important socioeconomic factors hold great influence over consumers’ purchases and, ultimately, their confidence in how their food is grown and raised.”

Trust in Farmers on the Menu this Holiday Season

Four out of 5 respondents are satisfied with Iowa agriculture from how animals are raised and cared for to farmers being stewards of air, soil and water quality. Specifically:

  • 57% say farmers are doing a good to excellent job in protecting Iowa’s air, soil and water (up 7% from 2016)
  • 39% say farmers do an excellent job producing safe, quality foods (up 12% from 2016)
  • 35% say farmers do an excellent job in raising healthy animals with care (up 9% from 2016)

    “Food purchasers have consistently given Iowa farmers high approval ratings since the Iowa Food & Family Project’s inaugural consumer trust survey,” said Laura Cunningham, marketing manager of Latham Hi-Tech Seeds. “I was encouraged to see in 2017 that a record number of respondents said farmers are on the right track with water quality, animal housing and biotechnology and are overall good community members and environmentalists. That’s the same experience I have working with farmer-customers, too.”

Trendy Labels Pushing Expiration Dates

Food labels such as “organic” and “all natural” showed a continued downward trend among survey respondents in terms of influencing their purchasing decision. Just 27% said they’re likely to purchase an item labeled organic, down 6%from 2016. A survey record 52 percent of respondents say the notation doesn’t affect their shopping habits. In fact, 1 in 5 shoppers is less likely to purchase food labeled organic.

“This is interesting because USDA Organic forecasted increases in organic-labeled products through 2018,” said Anne Hytrek, Hy-Vee Dietitian (Ankeny Prairie Trail) and Certified Diabetes Educator. “These results make me wonder if Iowans are learning more of the differences — or lack thereof —  in ‘organic’ or ‘all natural’ foods and discovering these labels may not necessarily mean food is healthier.”

The assumption doesn’t apply to all consumers, however. According to the survey, shoppers without advanced education are more than twice as likely than those with a college degree to say attributes such as organic and all-natural are extremely influential in their purchase decisions.

Responses show that college graduates whose household incomes exceed the state median of $54,000 are, at large, more trusting of modern agriculture and that food is of good quality.

“The survey results demonstrate that more affluent consumers are more likely to ask questions when they have concerns, focus more on specific ingredients and are not easily swayed by labels or clever advertising campaigns,” said Putze.

The results were also reassuring for Cunningham.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the survey findings that food labels like ‘organic’ and ‘all natural’ have little to no influence on actual purchases made,” said Cunningham. “Given all the media attention on water quality and food labeling, I would’ve expected different results. I’m convinced that ongoing, proactive efforts by Iowa farmers and industry advocates are making a positive impact and will continue to result in increased consumer confidence.”

There's No Sugar-coating it: Iowans are Confused about High Fructose Corn Syrup

More than half (54%) of respondents initially say they’re unlikely to purchase a food containing high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). However, after reading additional information provided by the Mayo Clinic that HFCS is nearly identical to table sugar and adds calories in the same way that other sweeteners do, respondents’ preferences changed dramatically. The background resulted in just 30% of shoppers saying the ingredient causes them to be less likely to purchase foods containing HFCS — a 24% decrease — while an additional 15% said HFCS now has no effect on their purchases.

“Walk down any grocery store aisle and just about everything on the shelves contains corn ingredients grown right here in Iowa. As farmers, we are proud of that,” said Larry Klever, Audubon farmer.

“However, we think there are a few things consumers should know about the corn we grow and how it is used,” Klever added. “We want Iowans to understand HFCS is made from corn, a natural grain product with no additives. The science is clear: you can enjoy sugar made from corn or sugar cane in moderation.”

"Soy" Much Misleading Information

Survey results show approximately 4 of 5 consumers are unaffected by soy ingredients on food labels. While the statistic is reassuring to Linda Funk, executive director of The Soyfoods Council, she acknowledges the continuous battle against false and misleading information that abounds in media and online, ultimately influencing shoppers’ habits.

“It’s great to see so many consumers are un-phased by marketing gimmicks related to soy, and that a portion actually seek out foods containing soy ingredients,” said Funk.

“But I can’t ignore the 23% who are likely either turned off from a GMO perspective, or have been fed inaccurate information about the benefits of soy protein,” she added. “Either way, we need to continually be sharing our resources of credible, well-researched information and the Iowa Food & Family Project and The Soyfoods Council are great vehicles to do so.”

Iowa FFP was launched in 2011 and today engages more than 100,000 consumers each month in conversation about food and agriculture to increase their confidence in how and where their food is grown. Results show Iowa FFP’s efforts are moving the needle, as those connected with the initiative report placing even greater trust in farmers, up 7 points from those unfamiliar.

“It’s gratifying to see more Iowans familiar with the Iowa Food & Family Project, involved in Iowa FFP activities and find the information we share helpful and valuable,” said Putze.