Survey: Americans Aware of Functional Foods, Don't Eat Them Enough

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Updated: 1/30/2012 4:34 pm

Aug. 4, 2011 -- More Americans say they are aware of the health benefits of functional foods, but there has been no increase over the past five years in the number of people who are eating them on a regular basis, according to a new survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC).

Functional foods are foods that may provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition. Examples include fish such as salmon, which are rich in heart-protective omega-3 fatty acids, and whole grains, which help maintain digestive health while potentially lowering the risk of colorectal cancer. Berries, dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, and other colorful fruits and vegetables also are considered functional foods.

Health Concerns and Functional Foods

One thousand randomly selected adults completed the IFIC’s online survey during March and April. The survey was designed to measure Americans’ knowledge about the health benefits of functional foods, whether or not such foods are part of their diet, and what barriers prevent them from eating them on a regular basis.

Ninety-five percent of the respondents believe that they have control over their own health. Nearly half said that heart disease was their most important health concern, followed by weight and cancer. And three-quarters of those who took the survey said that food plays the most important role in both maintaining and improving one’s overall health.

“Nine out of 10 people can name at least one food and its associated health benefits,” Elizabeth Rahavi, RD, associate director of health and wellness at the IFIC, told reporters. That’s up from just under eight out of 10 in 1998. “That’s a really exciting trend.”

For example, 85% of the people surveyed recognized that omega-3 fatty acids offer cardiovascular benefits. But of those who are aware of those benefits, less than half report that they get omega-3s.

There were similar findings for food components associated with overall health and well-being. While most of the respondents knew the value of protein and B vitamins, the survey reveals, only about half of those people make them a regular fixture at mealtimes.

Barriers to Eating Healthier Foods

“People are still struggling to incorporate functional foods into their diets,” IFIC Senior Vice President of Nutrition and Food Safety Marianne Smith Edge, MS, RD, LD, FADA, said in a news briefing.

According to the survey, cost is the most important reason people give for not eating healthier foods, followed by taste, availability, and convenience.

In his San Francisco-based practice, dietitian Manuel Villacorta, RD, MS, CSSD, finds that the biggest barriers to getting functional foods on his clients’ plates are unfamiliarity with how to prepare them and a perception that they don’t have the time that it would take to shop for and cook them.

“They know what is good for you -- knowledge of the benefits is not the problem -- but they don’t know what to do with these foods,” says Villacorta. “And in our fast-paced culture, trying to find the time to shop for and cook healthy, functional foods can be really stressful.”

And while people today may be better versed in what’s good for you, those who do make a point to eat well often have not learned the importance of portion control. Even good-for-you foods, says Villacorta, have to be eaten in moderation.

“If something is healthy, they often think, ‘the more the better,’” he says. “I have clients who tell me they are eating brown rice, eating almonds, eating organic but still they are not losing weight. I tell them, you have to watch your portion size.”

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