Unlimited sources, no answers: Learning food behaviors in the iPhone age

Unlimited sources, no answers: Learning food behaviors in the iPhone age


When looking at IFIC and IFIC Foundation’s vast library of consumer research, themes commonly emerge, including special consumer groups with different and specific views and behaviors than the rest of the population. Indeed, IFIC’s and other research has recently illuminated the unique set of perceptions held by Millennials; that is, those aged 18-34, born between 1980 and 1996. But where do they stand on various food and health issues, how do their views stack up to the rest, and what are the opportunities for engaging with this group to raise awareness and encourage healthful food behaviors?

Millennials are busy people who are skeptical of authoritative views and don’t feel an urgency to plan. IFIC’s “Perceptions of Eating and Drinking Occasions” research (2013) indicates Millennials are more likely to cite emotional reasons for eating and are less dependent on habit and routine than older adults. They are independent thinkers and try to make decisions and take actions that are practical and consistent with their peers and families.  

Most Millennials depend upon the internet for information, but this unlimited access to information makes it a challenge to determine the accuracy and credibility of various sources or to determine those that are credible. Millennials are highly skeptical of information they see and hear unless it comes from a known source such as a friend or family member. They value practical evidence, preferring to hear from sources like themselves who have met with success. Visual formats are often preferred. 

Millennials (18-24 year olds) are the age group most likely to rate their diet as not too or not at all healthful (27 percent). Two main knowledge gaps are: 1) what is an appropriate serving size, and 2) how many calories per day is appropriate for them.  Their key barriers to healthful eating are: Lack of time, leading to a need to eat things “on the go," and lack of money.  Additionally, Millennials do a lot of their eating with friends, which often compromises their ability to make the most healthful food choices. 

Both IFIC Foundation’s 2014 Food and Health Survey and IFIC’s focus group research with Millennials (2013) confirm that Millennials value the healthfulness of their food, but admit that they often don’t eat healthfully. Price and convenience are major factors for Millennials and, although they are digital natives, there is little guidance targeted specifically at helping them make healthful food choices. They find it difficult to tailor dietary guidance to their unique set of lifestyle circumstances, often living on one salary, with relatively lower incomes. According to Les Berglass, CEO of Berglass + Associates, the research firm that conducted the 2013 survey, “What Happens When Millennials Get the Wallet” along with Women’s Wear Daily, “Retailers do not fully understand the needs of Millennials and are employing marketing strategies that do not apply to them.”

IFIC’s research shows that Millennials would be likely to consider “organic,” fresh food as the most healthful, but find it too expensive to fit their budget.  They seem to be less aware of the nutritional value of more affordable choices such as frozen and canned foods, or the value of meal planning as an economic strategy.

However, Millennials' weight management goals are generally similar to those of other generations.  Just over half say they are trying to lose weight (55 percent), about the same as Generation X (61 percent) and Baby Boomers (57 percent).  However, six percent are trying to gain weight—more than the 1 to 2 percent who are doing so in the other generations. 

Millennials are the least likely to say they think about the number of calories they consume “always or often” (31 percent vs. 41 percent of the older generations combined).  Given that Millennials are just as likely as others to be trying to lose weight, their reduced focus on calories may be due to a lack of knowledge or different views about how to lose weight. When those consumers not taking control over their weight are asked why not, Millennials' reasons differ from other generations.  For example, they are more likely than older Americans to cite cost and a lack of knowledge about how to manage their weight as reasons for not taking more control over this area of their lives.  They are also more likely, along with Gen X-ers, to say they don’t take more control over their weight because they have more important things to worry about, don’t have the time, or don’t have access to exercise facilities.  

Trusted Sources
Millennials like to do their own research and share their knowledge with their peers. They use consensus to determine what makes sense and prefer short, encouraging, visual communications. They are very skeptical of influencers’ motives and tend to believe only sources with whom they can identify.  They are very social and share their views over many communication platforms, influencing a wide range of consumers.

Millennials are much more receptive to using technology to keep track of their calories and are more likely to think calorie information on menus would be helpful. Compared to older generations, Millennials are the least likely to consider the presence of the following ingredients in packaged foods: whole grains, sodium, fiber, sugars,  fats/oils, trans fats, saturated fats, low-calorie sweeteners, and omega-3s.

Millennials are also less apt than other generations to say that they look at the expiration date on packaged foods.

Spotlight on Millennials: Millennial Takeover Infographic

  • Despite being the subject of regular trend pieces, Millennials have very little nutrition information targeted to their needs.
  • Price and convenience are the key priorities for Millennials when making food decisions. 
  • Millennials associate both “organic” and freshness with healthfulness, and may not realize canned and frozen options can be healthful.
  • Though the Internet is an information source, Millennials only really trust information from friends and family.

Takeaway Message
IFIC’s research highlights opportunities to empower Millennials by overcoming their barriers to healthful eating. Young adult Millennials will be the parents and role models of the next generation, so it is important to consider their unique and diversified communication preferences and formats, trusted sources, and knowledge gaps.