LONDON/NEW YORK: Six in ten Americans are moving away from 'Big Food', but marketers need to avoid making blanket assumptions about people's eating and purchasing behaviours and understand the different motivations that drive particular groups, research suggests.

Writing in the current issue of Admap, Pushpa Gopalan, SVP, strategy director at Leo Burnett USA, and Elizabeth Knapp, SVP, research director of the HumanLab at Leo Burnett Worldwide, outline the findings of a large-scale study into the food shopping habits and eating behaviours of 4,500 Americans which identifies six types of grocery shopper.

They report that while 57% of Americans are moving away from 'Big Food', the remaining 43% "are still highly engaged with the foods that have become part of their lives".

And even among those moving away, "they aren't necessarily moving to healthier alternatives but often to incrementally less processed foods".

Processed foods may not be the pariah they are sometimes painted as, the authors suggest. "We saw people ascribe quality, convenience, nostalgia, and trust to these brands and think of them fondly. Which, to us, spells opportunity."

A consumer focus on health is often seen as an important driver of changing eating behaviour but it is certainly not the only one – quality and convenience also play a role – and, in any case, "health is in the eye of the beholder", say Gopalan and Knapp, being "very personally defined within a context of a person's current behaviours".

So, for some people that might mean a strong interest in organic products, while for others it could involve focusing on food 'free from' certain ingredients.

"One person may be moving away from plain cereals to organic yogurt for more natural ingredients while another may be moving from toaster pastries to plain cereals for greater nutrition."

That much is evident from a cluster analysis that reveals six distinct food groups. Among these the single biggest shift is from Highly Processed to Healthy & Nutritious foods, but the authors note this is not the only substitution path: "There can be way stations along the journey, such as to Sensory & Indulgent or Convenient & Healthy."

The other food group showing negative momentum is the Convenient & Lighter group: low-calorie/low-fat foods are seen as both processed and lacking in nutrition and here the dominant substitution is to foods that are Convenient & Healthy, which are big winners overall.

Data sourced from Admap