Calories still matter to consumers. While attention in product development circles may have shifted to such issues as sodium reduction, sugar reduction and adding positive ingredients like protein, fiber and whole grains, many consumers still focus on the calories they are consuming.

In its annual Food and Health Survey, the International Food Information Council Foundation asked 1,005 consumers “to what extent do you try to consume or avoid the following?” For calories, 48% of the respondents said they are trying to “limit or avoid entirely” calories. The only other ingredients that scored higher in the limited or avoid column were sodium at 53% and sugars at 50%.

The IFIC survey also revealed several fundamental changes in how consumers view the food and beverages they consume and define what is healthy. For the first time in at least a decade, the number of consumers who said taste drives their purchasing decisions topped 90%. Price, at 73%, remained the second most cited factor, but healthfulness, at 71%, narrowed the gap. In 2012, 61% of consumers said healthfulness was a factor, a figure that climbed to 64% in 2013.

Fewer consumers pointed to convenience as a driving force in the survey, dropping to 51% from 56% in 2013. Thirty-eight per cent said sustainability was an influencer, up from 36% in 2013, the survey said.

Certain subpopulations saw greater relative increases than others, with the per cent of consumers aged 18 to 34 citing healthfulness as a driver in food and beverage purchases jumping to 66% in 2014 from 55% in 2013. Meanwhile, the number of men citing healthfulness increased to 65% from 56%, which compared with an increase of 4 percentage points, to 76% from 72%, for women during the same period.

“While people’s attitudes about healthfulness in their food and beverage purchases and consumption alone don’t necessarily mean we are a healthier country today than we were a year or two ago, it could signal that we are moving in the right direction,” said Marianne Smith Edge, senior vice-president for nutrition and food safety at the International Food Information Council Foundation. “If perceptions translate into actions, the impact on the health and wellness of our nation could be significant and long-lasting.”

Eating more fruits and vegetables, reducing calories by drinking water, low- and no-calorie beverages, and eating more foods with whole grains topped the list of ways consumers said they are attempting to improve the healthfulness of their diets.

Nearly 9 out of 10 consumers said they have given some thought to the ingredients in their foods and beverages in the past year, but the number of consumers giving “a lot” of thought slipped in 2014 to 43%, down from 47% in 2013 and 49% in 2012. The number of consumers giving no thought to ingredients jumped to 12%, up from 7% in 2013 and compared with 9% in 2012.

When they do think about ingredients, 70% of consumers said they consider calories when making a purchase, down from 72% in 2013. Sixty-two per cent cited both sodium/salt and whole grains, which compared with 69% of consumers who considered such food components in 2013.

Added sugars remained the food component consumers most often try to avoid, at 51%, followed by trans fats (49%), high-fructose corn syrup (48%) and saturated fats (47%).

New Nutrition Facts Panel and calories

The Food and Drug Administration announced in late May it has extended the comment period by 60 days to Aug. 1 for two proposed rules that would change the Nutrition Facts Panel on products. Both proposed rules appeared in the Federal Register on March 3. One deals with revising nutrition and supplement facts labels. The other involves such issues as dual-column labeling and updating, modifying and establishing certain reference amounts customarily consumed.

“F.D.A. is proposing to update the Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods to reflect the most recent public health and scientific information, including information about the link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease,” the F.D.A. said. “The proposed label would also update out-of-date serving size requirements to better align with how much people really eat, and it features a fresh design to highlight key parts of the label such as calories and serving sizes.”

One notable change in the proposed design is the increased font size for the listing of calories in a product. The basis for the F.D.A.’s proposal dates back to 2005, when the agency received several comments associated with an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking that supported the increase in the prominence of calories on the Nutrition Facts Panel.

In addition, the agency said of the proposal, “Research conducted for warning labels and drug label formats has consistently demonstrated that increasing type size, among other things, increases attention to, and improves understanding of warning information, especially for older consumers and those with limited vision.”