As grocery shoppers continue to seek healthier alternatives to their traditional food choices, the question for food producers becomes how to figure out what consumers are substituting toward. For shoppers, those decisions are largely dictated by four criteria:
How can we quantify those factors? How best can food producers and food manufacturers meet consumers' demands for healthier options? Let's take a look.
"Nutritional benefit" is a broad way of saying "fresher, leaner and less preserved."
For some consumers, nutritional benefit means lower calorie. For others, it means less added sugar, less sodium and/or fewer unpronounceable chemicals in the ingredient list. For some, it's a lower fat calories to total calories ratio, while others see a benefit in a higher fat calories to total calories ratio. And for still others, nutritional benefit means "organic," "locally-sourced," "non-GMO" or a niche characteristic like gluten-free, vegan-friendly or soy-free.
The bottom line is this: You need to have an idea of which consumer segment or segments you are targeting with your product. You can't try to be all things to all people. Your packaging needs to speak to the particular subset of grocery shoppers who would be keen to purchase your product. You need to know their motivators, their general ethos and their shopping habits.
Taste equivalency and mouthfeel are related.
Basically, these categories boil down to this: can consumers imagine that the product they are eating is the less healthy product they crave, but simply substituted for health purposes? What does that mean?
Well, for example, we've already seen great success with turkey substitutes for fattier meats. Turkey breakfast sausages, turkey bacon, turkey burger patties and turkey hot dog links have grabbed a significant portion of market share away from traditional pork and beef. Why?
It's because turkey is leaner, has a relatively neutral flavor that can be enhanced (via smoke flavoring and spices) to seem more like the original target product and has a similar mouthfeel (chewy and savory) to pork or beef.
Turkey is perceived, by many grocery shoppers, to be a healthier alternative. According to Technomic’s 2015 Poultry Consumer Trend Report, 61 percent of consumers agree that turkey is a healthier meat than beef or pork. And since turkey-based products are generally similar enough in taste and texture to their "less healthy" counterparts, they have become a common diet substitution.
Price is a factor, but it’s not as limiting as you might think.
We know that most grocery shoppers are going to be price-sensitive, so producing and marketing a "healthy substitute" should not mean deviating too far from the median price of the original product. But here's the good news: when it comes to products geared toward healthy eaters, you can get away with a slightly higher markup.
According to a 2015 Nielsen survey, 88 percent of grocery shoppers are actually willing to pay more for healthier substitute products. And there are plenty of celebrity role models who promote the virtues of niche diets, further reinforcing the trend. Indeed, "healthier" seems to garner an expectation of "premium" in the market.
Consumers expect that a healthier product will be produced less cheaply and with higher quality ingredients than the product they desire to substitute away from. Thus, a traditional hot dog consumer might expect to pay more for "turkey links made with lean, high-quality cuts." The health benefit derived from the leaner, more natural, less-preserved product is clearly worth the spend for most consumers.
Want to cash in on the healthy foods trend?
Make sure that the healthy substitutes you develop have a clearly-defined and well-marketed health benefit. Don't try to be all things to all people — know your target market segment and focus on one or two well-promoted health benefits per product.
In the research and development phase, make sure that your healthy substitute product has a similar mouthfeel to the original. Beans, for example, are an excellent protein substitute for beef-derived protein, but they have an entirely different texture. They may not be the most advisable basis for a beef alternative. Likewise, alternatives should be as close to flavor-neutral as possible, then naturally spiced or flavored to bring your product as close to the profile of the original as is possible.
Lastly, your packaging should state — prominently — what the health benefit of a given item is, and pricing should reflect consumers' expectations of a premium product, without deviating too far from that of the original product.