Lately, I've gotten the impression that Americans have fallen off the "nutrition wagon" and are back to wolfing down hamburgers and banana splits. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that steak restaurants are making a sizzling comeback, dessert sales are up, and hearty fare is all the rage at fast food joints. Is our love affair with low-fat over? Linda Gilbert doesn't think so.

Gilbert is president of HealthFocus, an Emmaus, Pa.-based consulting firm that works with the food industry. Since 1990 the company has conducted a bi-annual study, the HealthFocus on U.S. Consumers. "People are going back to eating some red meat and desserts - indulgence kinds of foods - but I think they're going to do it more thoughtfully," she says. "I think that consumers are smarter than perhaps a lot of marketers and advertisers give them credit for. They look at what they're doing across the board. There is more evidence that people are balancing their diet, taking a big-picture view of it all."
The syndicated study - subtitled "A Trend Study of Public Attitudes and Actions Toward Healthy Food Choices" - was designed to provide a comprehensive look at the behavior of people who say they eat healthy. "We started the study to have a database of more detailed information that we could use in our decision making for clients," Gilbert says.

As well as providing an ongoing yard-stick of health-conscious consumers' eating habits and opinions, the study was intended to prove that consumers really do have an interest in healthy eating. "There's been some questioning of whether people really are interested in [eating healthy]," Gilbert says.

"Looking at our survey results, it's clear that this is important to people. There is a compelling interest in the role of diet and nutrition in disease prevention. But it seems that people are changing their approach in some respects. They're recognizing that the quick-fix solutions aren't real solutions at all. Rather, they're looking for things they can live with over the long haul, that they can adopt on a lifestyle basis.

"Consumers are very demanding; they want it all. I think that the food industry has not responded with the best-tasting kinds of products, but many of those products are getting better. Toward that end consumers are less likely to be looking for things that require much compromise, because they 're not willing to make compromises over the long haul. They say, 'I might be willing to do it over six weeks on a diet but I'm not going to do it for the next 30 years of my life.'"

Everybody wins

One of the beauties of a syndicated study is that in most cases, it's a good deal for everyone involved. The research company undertaking the study offsets its costs by signing up sponsors. Sponsors, in turn, usually get quite a bit of information - including responses to proprietary questions - at a nominal price.

Respondents for the HealthFocus study are recruited throughphone interviews, first to determine their interest in healthy foods and then to find out if they will participate in the written, self-administered questionnaire that is the basis of the study.

For the 1992 study, the 300-question survey covered topics from attitudes towards personal health and perceptions of companies and brands to product usage and attitudes toward food. It was sent to about 2,000 U.S. consumers identified through the recruiting as food shoppers with an interest in healthy foods. Just over 1,000 questionnaires were returned in usable form, for a response rate of 51%.

Five segments

Based on their answers, the respondents were grouped into five segments: managers, investors, healers, strugglers and disciples. In the 1992 results, roughly half the respondents were managers, just over a quarter were investors, healers and strugglers each weighed in at about 10%, and disciples were the smallest group at 2% of the total.

Managers think about healthy eating in the short term; they know that eating well makes them feel better right away. Investors eat well as apreventive measure so they will stay healthy. Healers feel they have health problems and therefore must make dietary and other lifestyle changes to regain good health. Strugglers are interested in healthy eating but can't stick to it, bouncing between a good and bad diet. Disciples are committed healthy eaters. They follow a strict regimen, for health or spiritual reasons.

As with any study that measures consumer habits and preferences over time, the majority of the HealthFocus questionnaire stays the same from year to year. Of course, the sponsors' proprietary questions can change and some questions are included to get a feel for opinions on hot issues of the day, Gilbert says.

"For example, we had more questions about the environment and food safety in 1990 than in 1992, but we put more ques-tions in about food health claims in 1992. For the most part we're trying to protect the trend information. When we do it in '94, about 95% of the questionnaire will be the same as it was in '90 and '92."

Thus far, two food companies and a health organizationhave signed onfor 1994. Past sponsors have included Quaker Oats, Campbell Soup and the National Livestock and Meat Board.

Incentives go to charity

HealthFocus puts an interesting twist on the idea of respondent incentives. Instead of the usual dollar gratuity for respondents, those who complete the HealthFocus survey choose a charity from a list of eight, to which HealthFocus contributes $2. "We feel good about it because it's a way that as a company we can contribute to these organizations," Gilbert says. "We get a good response rate and I think the respondents feel good about it too. We've actually had people send the questionnaire back with a check for additional money! It's also an interesting research question; for example, who's picking environmental charities versus the National Cancer Society?"

Pool for special projects

A useful byproduct of the survey is apool of respondents who can be contacted for more specialized research projects. At the end of the questionnaire, those interested in participating in other studies are asked to provide their name, address, and phone number.

"We can take, for example, a new product idea to these people in a telephone survey," Gilbert says."We don'tneedtoget all of their demographics because we have the information collected already. It's proven to be a real interesting way to go back and test an idea with a group of people and be able to look at their attitudes and practices in detail.

"For example, recently we wanted to interview people who say that they use soy milk and ask what they would think about a soy milk fortified to be more nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk. We wanted to find out if they liked the idea and how much they would be willing to pay for it. With a quick little 10-minute telephone interview we have a pretty good idea of who's going to be the receptive market."

Moderation in '94

Gilbert expects to see further evidence of moderation in the 1994 survey, along with more respondents who call themselves vegetarians. Though as she found recently, the '90s definition of vegetarian seems to be a bit different than the one found in Webster's. Nowadays, the ranks of self-described vegetarians are swelling with folks who shun red meat but still eat poultry and seafood. "I was at a party wearing a Vegetarian Times T-shirt," Gilbert says, "and a woman came up to me and said, I'm a vegetarian too! Of course, I still eat chicken and fish...'

"Within the low-fat trend we' re seeing an emerging trend toward vegetarianism that I think is going to come up much stronger in the '94 survey; not necessarily that people are vegetarian in the classic sense of not eating any meat, but they'r eeating meatless meals more often."