An annual survey from the Food Marketing Institute, Prevention magazine, and Rodale gives a glimpse into the “why” of consumers’ food choices as they attempt to eat more healthful diets. The Shopping for Health 2012 report looks at motivations and intentions behind consumers’ food choices.

The survey found that nearly 80 percent of consumers said they try to make healthy food choices at least some of the time, although the statistic drops dramatically when the question becomes whether healthy food choices have become a habit–31 percent said they put “a lot” of effort into healthy eating.  In that group, 71 percent said they are successful more than half of the time and 11 percent said they always succeed.

While data illustrating our intentions and how well consumers are following through have remained much the same in recent years, consumers are making fewer excuses for not making healthier food choices. Of all excuses that people gave for not choosing healthy options, the only one that has increased since 2007 is the perception that it is too expensive to eat food that is better for us.

Prices and budgets have been of increasing concern since the recession began five years ago, a fact that is reflected in other statistics in the report. This year, 60 percent of consumers said they are choosing store brands over brand names, and 48 percent said they are buying fewer prepared meals and doing more cooking at home, compared with 48 percent and 38 percent respectively, in 2009.

“More and more shoppers are making the switch to foods with benefits. They are steering away from empty calories and asking, ‘What’s in my food, and how is it good for me?’ ” Cary Silvers, director of consumer insights at Prevention, said in a news release about the report.

Respondents of the 2012 survey got specific when defining major diet-related health concerns. Priorities vary somewhat between age groups and genders but overall, “maintaining/improving heart health” ranks highest on the top ten list, while preventing cancer is sixth, behind providing more energy, avoiding empty calories, digestive health, and improving immunity.

The report also has good news for restaurants. Respondents citing “not available at restaurants” as an obstacle to healthy eating decreased from 50 percent in 2007 to 40 percent this year. So it appears from the survey that restaurants are doing a better job of offering healthy choices and getting the word out through marketing.

Additional survey findings:

  • Men are less likely to count calories but more likely to pay attention to the nutritional content of food and beverages. They are also more likely to pick a nutritionist over a trainer when trying to lose weight.
  • Consumers still rate food labeled “natural” on par with certified organic offerings in terms of health benefits.
  • Sixty five percent of consumers said they bought locally produced food in the past year.
  • Half of parents said nutrition is most important when buying food for their children, while 43 percent said they buy what their children like.
  • Convenience is key for the 39 percent who pick “easy, on the go” items and the 32 percent who pick food that takes the least amount of time to prepare.