Why it can be so hard to find affordable, healthy food.

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A new report found most people had trouble finding healthy foods. Getty Images

You may be like many Americans who seek out healthy options at the grocery store for their family, only to have difficulty finding the items that will be healthiest.

If all of that sounds familiar, you’re in good company. A new survey reveals that the vast majority of Americans want to eat healthy, but many find it difficult to access the most nutritious options.

A report from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation and the American Heart Association found that 95 percent of shoppers in the United States say they always or sometimes seek healthy food options.

While the overwhelming majority want the best foods, only 28 percent say it’s easy to find these products, and 11 percent report it’s just too difficult to track them down at all.

This stark disparity between a willingness to eat healthy and having the access to do so is certainly frustrating for consumers, said Cheryl Anderson, PhD, MPH, MS, associate professor of preventive medicine at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and a science volunteer and chair of the Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association.

“I think it’s [the disparity] not totally surprising given the trends that we see in recent years,” Anderson told Healthline. “It clearly illustrated that consumers are wanting healthful products. I think shedding light on this is really important.”

Anderson added that it can give food companies more information about what consumers want.

“Consumers are saying, ‘Hey, this is important to me,'” Anderson told Healthline.

The findings came from an online survey of 1,017 adults in the United States between the ages of 18 to 80 who have the sole or shared responsibility of overseeing their household grocery shopping, according to IFIC’s press release.

Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, said a lot of misinformation that’s circulated about the food we buy could lead to this gap between what we want to eat and what we end up finding in stores.

“There is a lot of conflicting information about what constitutes a healthy food. Front-label packaging on foods often misleads consumers into believing that a food is healthier than it is. For example, many children’s cereals will say ‘good source of vitamin D.’ However, it might have a lot of sugar and not much fiber in the cereal. That is misleading the consumer to believe this cereal will provide an added benefit when they could easily get the vitamin D from a supplemental pill, drops, or milk or non-dairy product,” Hunnes, who wasn’t affiliated with the new report, told Healthline.

Hunnes said that consumers today receive a “constant barrage” of information in the media that attest to “fad diets.” This can make a consumer’s head spin. What actually is healthy?

“Right now, ‘keto’ seems to be the buzzword, so people will believe that only ‘keto-approved’ foods are healthy,” she added. “So, I think in many cases, misleading packaging, advertisements, news stories, pop culture, et cetera make it difficult for people to truly know what the ‘healthy’ option is once they are standing in front of a row of foods at the grocery store.”

Caitlin Terpstra, RDN, LD, a nutritionist at Mayo Clinic, echoed Hunnes’s thoughts. She said when people head to their grocery stores, they can be overwhelmed by signs.

A single store may have a “health section” or signs that say “dietitian approved” and “superfoods,” among others.

“How is a consumer to know what all these messages and health claims mean?” Terpstra, who is also not affiliated with the survey, told Healthline. “Especially when a consumer only has a limited time to get their groceries trying to decode these messages is not realistic.”

Terpstra also pointed out that cost can be an issue for many consumers looking for healthy foods.

“Another barrier is often consumers believe ‘fresh’ is the only option, and during certain seasons, fresh is not financially possible for many people due to produce not being in season,” Terpstra said. “Barriers to accessing healthy foods include: lack of transportation, finances, time in regards to store hours, weather, and food deserts and availability of nutrient-dense foods within a reasonable proximity.”

Food labeling appears to be crucial to consumers’ choices when purchasing their food, but consumers often look to different labels to determine if a food is healthy.

The survey found that 69 percent of people used the Nutrition Facts panel on their food items as the top source for nutrition information. This was followed by 67 percent using the ingredients list.

Beyond this, 45 percent sought out labels for ingredients they were specifically seeking compared to 31 percent who consulted labeling to see if the foods contained ingredients they needed to avoid.

“In America, we try different ways of educating the customer. Sometimes that happens before you even walk through the grocery store through public health efforts,” Anderson added. “Things like labels are key. This isn’t the first survey to show that shoppers get confused and need different types of information to affect their purchase patterns. Labeling is one very good way for us to help the consumer while they are in the store.”

Alexandra Lewin-Zwerdling, PhD, MPA, vice president of research and partnerships at the IFIC Foundation, told Healthline that a lot of consumers would like to see a simpler image available on their food. For people who might not automatically know what all the percentages and nutrition terminology means when they walk through the grocery store aisles, shopping for healthy food can be intimidating.

Right now, the American Heart Association has a Heart Check symbol on foods, indicating items that are particularly heart-healthy. About 48 percent of those surveyed said they regularly look at these kinds of icons at the front of a package. Three in five are somewhat familiar with the AHA’s symbol, with millennials as the age group who were most familiar with it, at 35 percent.

Anderson said that it could be particularly helpful if more of this kind of streamlined, clear labeling were available. She said the FDA right now is exploring new symbols for food labels.

“I think there should be standard food labeling, as there is in many cases, where the healthfulness of an item as identified by an unbiased, scientific community, can be easily marked on a package,” Hunnes stressed.

Hunnes said it could be helpful, for example, if a rubric was established for heavily processed foods. A processed food that’s still reasonably healthful could get a specific marker, she said.

“I think this information would be more useful to people as long as there was explanation as to how food items received their ratings,” Hunnes added.

Terpstra agreed, adding that “changes are needed” in how clear we make our food labels. She said that the proposed changes on the way from the FDA ensure that mandated labels “be revised due to evidence-based research and literature which shows a direct link between intake and chronic disease.”

She pointed out some labels have already changed — showing bolded serving sizes and calorie content. Micronutrients are now clearly labeled in their amounts as opposed to just the percent of daily value. All other labels will have to comply with new FDA regulations by Jan. 1, 2021.

All of the white noise on social media can complicate things. Lewin-Zwerdling said that it’s easy for consumers to fall down the “rabbit hole of nutrition information” that’s out there.

“A lot of what drives consumers now is not necessarily nutrition all the time,” she said. “It’s convenience, it’s taste, it’s price. It’s where something was made, whether it was made in a sustainable way, whether packaging is recyclable — these are all factors that come into play that fit into the bigger picture of a food’s nutritional quality.”

She emphasized that it’s crucial to reach out to your nutritionist and medical team about the best foods for you. Don’t pay attention to what an anonymous, unvetted Twitter user might be posting when it comes to nutrition information.

If you’re trying to navigate all of this, are there any helpful tips for finding the best, healthiest foods?

In addition, to the classic advice of shopping the “perimeter” of the grocery store where fresh produce is kept, there are other steps shoppers can take to find healthy foods.

“Search for foods with the fewest and least processed ingredients,” Hunnes said. “Search for ingredients that are recognizable in that you or your mother could have made the food. Shop fresh whenever possible as opposed to packaged. Don’t buy into the hype on the front of the food label.”

Hunnes said, in general, it’s better to eat less processed foods and “stick to recipes that are easy to make with readily available ingredients.”

Anderson acknowledges this can be difficult since currently a person needs “quite a bit of literacy to read our current food labels.”

She suggested you outline the health goals you may have set with your dietitian or doctor and then try to match that up with foods you peruse at the store.

“Right now, people are demanding that information is out there, that they get what they need,” Anderson added. “It’s important that people have the best, clear information to make those critical choices.”

A report from the IFIC Foundation and the American Heart Association found that 95 percent of shoppers in the United States say they always or sometimes seek healthy food options.

While the overwhelming majority want the best foods, only 28 percent say it’s easy to find these products, and 11 percent report it’s just too difficult to track them down at all.

Dietitians suggest that consumers do their research, set health goals with their medical team, and do the best they can to sift through all the information out there. Always ask your physician or dietitian before consulting unvetted sources on social media.