We're eating healthy, but still buying junk food

According to new research from the University at Buffalo School of Management published in the Journal of Retailing, even health-conscious consumers continue to buy some less-healthy foods.

The study found that despite the fact that consumers are concerned about healthy eating, junk food still winds up in their shopping carts.

What people say they want to eat and what they actually buy aren't always in agreement. As the researchers point out, consumers make tradeoffs on healthy and unhealthy food to varying degrees.

The researchers analyzed two years' worth of scanner data across more than 70 stores of a U.S. retailer as well as survey responses from 400 of the chain's shoppers to determine if consumers consciously balanced their health concerns with their actual food purchases.

The study divided consumers into three groups using a mathematical model based on their concerns and attitudes: the first group consisted of health-driven shoppers, the second took a more moderate approach to buying healthy products and the third group was indifferent to the healthier versions of products.

When faced with healthy or unhealthy choices -- which the study based on the level of salt, fat, or sugar -- the consumer segments demonstrated variations in characteristics, purchasing behavior, and response to price and discounts.

Price had the least impact on the health-driven group, where a whopping 92 percent of buyers consistently purchased the healthy options. The moderate group was considerably more price sensitive and likely to balance between healthy and regular versions of products -- roughly half of the buyers in this group opted for the healthy options. In the third group, consumers were more sensitive to price and discounts and preferred the regular versions of products rather than their healthy alternatives.

According to the authors, retailers can use these findings to design different strategies that meet the demand for and encourage the purchase of healthier products.

I can honestly say that I'm one of those health-minded consumers who still indulges in not-so-healthy foods every once in a while, whether at home or restaurants. You can only eat salads so many times before you get bored.

For example, I've cut sugary cereals from my diet (e.g., Lucky Charms) and only purchase healthier options like Special K. I try to refrain from eating very greasy and sugary foods like French fries, pizza, donuts, and ice cream. As far as sodas, I only drink Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi. However, I still eat potato chips, though we try to buy only those whose bags show "Baked" or "Reduced Fat."

And even though we do our best to eat at Subway as many times as possible, every once in a while I'll indulge in a steak and baked potato at Outback Steakhouse, or a cheeseburger or two at McDonald's.

Another reason why consumers might opt to balance healthy and unhealthy foods: the former tend to be more expensive. Organic foods like the ones you find at Whole Foods tend to come with high price tags.

As long as people exercise and limit their food portions, they have a little more leeway to treat themselves to junk food every once in a while.

Do you balance junk food with healthy alternatives?  Which type of food do you tend to eat more?

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