What does “better for you” mean in 2018?

Picture of Meredith Daca

by Meredith Daca

Senior Culinary Planner

What foods are good for you? It’s tempting to see this question as a modern concern, but the connection between food and health goes back through recorded history.

Our dietary choices have evolved alongside our (incomplete) understanding of what’s best for human body, along with the culture that assigns value to that understanding. It’s how we went from using tobacco as a cure for the common cold to increasing metabolism with arsenic. If history is any indication—terms, definitions and dietary demands will continue to change.

This unstable dynamic between medicine and nutrition (and now social and ecological considerations) can leave better-for-you product innovation and production at a standstill. If it’s going to change next year, why bother addressing it at all? Because it’s a major priority for consumers. In fact, 67% of Americans are looking for healthy or socially conscious foods in 2018.1 It’s a strong demand that, when approached in the right way, can give consumers a renewed sense of loyalty and trust in a brand.

So, what exactly does “better for you” mean today? Over the past decade, there’s been a move from narrow, diet-based concerns toward a more holistic approach to eating. Because consumers are increasingly educated about what goes into their food and how it’s made, questions about sourcing and processing are in sharper focus. Priorities vary by consumer, but three key motivations are determining health-minded food choices today: clean ingredients, functional foods and socially conscious foods.

Eating “clean” ingredients.

You’ve probably heard the term “clean” picking up steam. So…what does it mean? Like health-focused buzzwords before it, “clean” is permeating labels and menus without clear definition. While the FDA has defined “healthy” and is approaching a “natural” definition, they have yet to weigh in on “clean” ingredients. Generally speaking, “clean” food is defined by what’s not in it. This includes “free from” claims like GMOs or artificial and processed ingredients and even extends to elimination diets concerned with animal products and gluten.

68% of consumers in the U.S. are concerned with what’s not in their food.1

2 in 5 consumers look for food and drinks with “no artificial ingredients”2

Eating for function.

As opposed to “clean” claims, functional foods can be defined by what they provide to the consumer instead of what they lack. Whether they’re looking for a protein boost, extra fiber or heart-health-promoting vitamins, consumers are intrigued by foods and beverages that have a positive effect on specific health concerns.

62% of consumers want to see more nutritional information on menus, and 53% of consumers agree that health claims guide their decision toward what to order.3

Plant-Based Burgers make the top 5 list of protein trends in 2018’s What’s Hot Chef Survey.4

Coconut water noted a 39% increase in product launches from 2015 to 2016. 32% of consumers correlate plant-based waters with health, demonstrating its increased growth in health segments.5

Eating with a purpose.

While the “clean” and “functional” foods tie directly to the call for health, this trend leans toward the “socially conscious” demand consumers are making. It’s about mindful eating and drinking that respects the environment and the body. Consumers are looking to minimize waste and protect their health, and to do that they’re honing in on where and how the food is made. They want foods that are produced consciously—with consideration of conditions (both for animals and farmers) and impact (sustainable production and distribution).

About 83% of U.S. consumers are adding plant-based foods to their diets to improve overall health and nutrition, while 6% are doing so for weight management.6

Sales of plant based milk substitutes have soared 76% over the past five years while conventional milk sales dropped 18%.7

Food waste reduction ranks at #4 among top concept trends in NRA’s 2018 What’s Hot Chef Survey.


1Neilsen Insights, “Fad or Fundamental? What’s Next for Health and Wellness in 2018?” February 7, 2018.
2Mintel Blog, “Is “Clean” the New Healthy?,” May 9, 2018.
3Mintel, Innovation on the Menu, September 2016.
4NRA What’s Hot Survey 2018.
5Mintel, Healthy Dining Trends, March 2017.
6Nielsen, 2017.
7Wall Street Journal, “Do You Need A Cow For Milk?,” 2017.
8NRA, “What’s Hot” Chef Survey, 2018.