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“Health and wellness is THE single most powerful consumer force of 2021.” That’s the main finding of NielsenIQ’s latest Global Health and Wellness report. Here’s more about the findings and what they mean for food and beverage companies from Sherry Frey, VP of Total Wellness at NielsenIQ.

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What health and wellness means to consumers today

There has been a massive shift in ideas surrounding health and wellness since before the pandemic. It’s not just diets and fitness anymore. Today’s consumers are taking a much more holistic approach, considering not only their own health and wellness but that of their communities and the planet.

“Even prior to COVID, there were a lot of forces affecting the wellness landscape – the aging population, the rise in the conversation around mental health, obesity, growing healthcare costs, etc.,” Frey said. “Then COVID hit, and it expanded our collective view of what we think of as wellness. Health is no longer just about disease management. There’s a lens toward vitality, toward living an overall well-rounded life.”

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The broader concept of wellness includes the planet as well. “A lot of research has shown a marked increase in consumer passion for the environment as a result of COVID,” Frey said. “Everything from helping local businesses survive to caring for the local community to reducing our personal carbon footprints. Almost 70% of global consumers understand that their choices impact the planet, and they’re ready to take action on environmental and sustainability issues.”

How food and beverage brands can meet consumers’ wellness needs

What it all comes down to, Frey said, is that consumers today are “eating their values.” Their consumption choices reflect who they are and their priorities. This creates not just an opportunity for food and beverage brands, but an imperative.

Nearly three-quarters (72%) of consumers believe companies play a big role in the availability of and access to healthy food. And more than six in 10 (63%) said they’re more likely to buy from companies with strong health mandates across their product portfolios.

On the personal health and wellness front, consumers want food that helps them proactively manage their wellbeing. “One of the areas of phenomenal growth that we’ve seen is this idea of food as medicine,” Frey said.

According to NielsenIQ’s data, more than three-quarters of consumers prioritize wellness at least some of the time. Almost half (48%) are proactive – they read labels and make intentional, informed decisions based on goals like reducing inflammation and improving brain and digestive health – while another 29% prioritize wellness when an issue arises. The remaining 23% aren’t actively making wellness-based food choices.

Frey thinks there are opportunities for food and beverage manufacturers to reach all three groups. Take added sugars, for example. By reducing added sugars, brands can appeal directly to proactive consumers and also provide wellness benefits for the other two groups. “It’s not that they don’t want to be healthy; it’s just that they’re not actively doing the work,” Frey said. “There’s an opportunity for the industry to make it easy and help consumers down the path of wellness without forcing them to do the work.”

On the environmental front, Frey believes that sustainability is a continuum where all manufacturers can, and should, find a place. “The industry is starting to recognize that consumers are not just saying sustainability is important…there’s a willingness to buy differently, to pay a premium. Even if a product isn’t a health product, that doesn’t mean you’re not taking actions around animal welfare or social or environmental issues. Every manufacturer has a role and an opportunity along that continuum toward planet health.”

Frey recognizes that achieving sustainability goals can be more difficult for larger manufacturers with many brands that they’ve acquired over the years than it is for smaller brands that built these values into their process from the start. But, she noted, “there’s definitely a lot of upside to the industry continuing to evolve and make sustainability a priority.”

In terms of what’s coming on the environmental front, Frey thinks the “next iteration of the continuum is around regeneration – not just ‘How do we minimize our impact?’ but ‘How do we repair the damage that’s been done?’”

Looking into the future, NielsenIQ anticipates that perceptions of health and wellness will continue to evolve and expand. Frey sees the biggest opportunities coming from technology – both agtech and consumer technology – that will “allow the industry to collaborate in new ways across the supply chain and across the consumer need space.” She specifically points to technologies that enable traceability, speed-to-market for new innovations, and even collaborations with retailers on what products are coming to market.

For more insights into the current state of consumer health and wellness, explore the full report.