Throughout the morning, my co-workers stopped to admire the low-cal, post-Thanksgiving lunch awaiting me on my desk: a colorful blend of tomatoes, purple cabbage, arugula and leftover turkey (of course). They commended me for my healthy eating habits, though the “packaging” seemed more interesting to them than the contents.
My salad was contained in a mason jar. I couldn’t take credit for the invention, though; mason-jar salads are a new trend among the real-food set. And they really work—the greens stay fresh and dry while the vegetables marinate in the dressing at the bottom of the jar. When it’s time to eat, just turn it upside down and shake. It’s a huge time-saver, too. A salad can stay fresh for three to four days sealed in a jar, so you can pack several on a Sunday and be set for the better part of the week.
As usual with Unison folks, brand people that we are, talk of mason-jar salads soon turned into a larger and longer conversation on market trends.
While Unison people might be more interested in product packaging than most, our interest in healthy eating is becoming more common, as well. Twenty-five percent of consumers say they have a daily calorie target (QSR Magazine). In fact, four of QSR Magazine’s Top Ten Trends for 2013 revolve around healthy eating: “1. Going local; 2. Healthy kids’ meals; 5. More fruits and veggies; 10. Evolving around healthcare.” More recently, changing dining habits even loomed large over McDonald’s disappointing second quarter results announced in the summer.
It’s clear that consumers are increasingly choosing healthier foods. But when we started asking, ‘Why?,’ the literature wasn’t as clear. Many papers point to an evolving consciousness about eating. Yes, consumers today are more educated than ever about the link between health and food, thanks to advances in medical research and a steady accompaniment of mainstream media reports. But consumers, and particularly American consumers, have a well-documented susceptibility to media fads about eating and dieting.
In 17 of the 21 restaurant chains evaluated from 2006-2011, lower-calorie foods and beverages outperformed their higher-calorie peers in both same-store sales and customer traffic. (QSR Web)
So is healthy eating just a fad, or are there broader market fundamentals underlying the trend? Economically, healthy eating (vegetarian at least) does seem to make some sense for diners. The wholesale price of meat, and beef especially, has risen by about 40 percent since 2010, making vegetables a much more attractive choice. But for younger consumers who, until recently, were the largest restaurant audience, money is not the deciding factor as they spend more of their income on food than any other generation (QSR Magazine). Though we looked, we could not find any research correlating healthy dining choices with other factors such increasing healthcare costs.
Researchers, however, are examining a different kind of shift: this one in attitude, particularly in the Millennial generation.
While this talk of rational choice is all well and good, Unison Brand Strategist and über stat-master Stuart Shapiro has uncovered another intriguing and compelling hypothesis from his research into demographic trends—sex appeal. He says Millennials eat better to appear more attractive and more prosperous to the opposite sex.
I’ll let Stuart explain:
STUART’S MILLENNIAL HEALTHY EATING HYPOTHESIS
Well, there’s a lot of research out there to look at. To start, more than anything, Millennials love themselves. They are far more narcissistic than prior generations, which magazines have unfortunately lampooned for some time. In a time-lag study of college students from 1979 through 2006, Millennials scored 30% higher on a narcissism personality inventory than their older counterparts (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008).
Second, the young tend to be more judgmental. One study looked at the moral overtones of food choices and how they affect our opinions of others. Foods are very often polarized into “good” or “bad” buckets based on our cultural preferences of the time. In today’s Western culture, healthy food is “good” while processed/junk food is “bad.” In a study of undergraduate women, “good” food eaters were rated as better looking and more feminine than “bad” food eaters. In fact, male “good” food eaters were rated especially attractive (Steim & Nemeroff, 1995).
Third, Millennials like to look thin … and rich. Another paper took a meta-analysis approach, comparing a number of other studies related to socioeconomic status and body mass index (BMI). Controlling for various demographic variables such as age, education, and marital status, BMI has been found to go down in women as they become more affluent. For men, their BMI also goes down, too, but then, interestingly, rises dramatically in the highest income quartile (Godley & McLaren, 2010). (That finding alone could fuel a whole other blog post about the possible causes and implications of the trend.)
So, in synthesizing what these papers are telling us, whether healthy eating is a trend or a fad among Millennials becomes clearer. With a growing sense of self-importance, Millennials feel that they need to look good and prosperous to potential partners. Eating “good” foods, which today’s culture dictates as healthy foods, makes Millennials feel more attractive. As a side effect of eating healthy, their decreased BMI makes them appear wealthier, as well.
Healthy eating is simple Darwinian sexual selection in a 21st century context.
Final thoughts from Jay
Nice leg-work, Stuart. (Have I mentioned that you should never argue with Stuart?) In any case, I still maintain that sustainable consumption is the way of the future, and that real resource-driven factors are strong incentives for consumers to eat healthily. Regardless of whether you believe Stuart or me, or both of us, it’s clear from the research that healthy dining options are a good bet for restaurant and hospitality brands going forward.
So, while I definitely feel healthier, I also know that I’m contributing to a better world. Meanwhile, Stuart views the ooohing and aahing over my mason-jar salads with a little skepticism now … either way, I win. Save the planet, live longer and look good doing it, apparently.