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A Tasty Business

Focuses on the two annual surveys conducted by The NPD Group aimed at tracking the tastes of consumers in the United States. Survey on NET (what we eat at home) and CREST (what we order in restaurants); Introduction of Create-A-Meal, a frozen combo of vegetables, pasta or potatoes; Information on 'Eating Patterns in America'; Increase in the percentage of people who have a drink with dinner.

Who do America's food giants, from Burger King and McDonald's to Kraft and Pillsbury, call when they're picking out new items to put on menus and supermarket shelves? The trend trackers. They know what you're eating.

Every evening, Katie Wagner sits down at the dining table and writes in her diary. But instead of reporting her thoughts about the events of the day, the people she's met, the places she's been, she meticulously records what she and each member of her family—her husband Gary and their two boys, Kyle and Kaleb—have eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as in-between snacks. "I've done it for the last four or five years," says Wagner, a part-time social worker and waitress from Enumclaw, Washington. "It helps me set up for the next day because I know what we've had."

Serving her family a varied diet isn't the purpose of her writing exercise, however. Rather, Wagner is part of a more ambitious enterprise. Hers is just one of 13,000 families participating in two annual surveys aimed at tracking the tastes—literally—of American consumers: NET (what we eat at home) and CREST (what we order in restaurants). Conducted by The NPD Group, a New York-based market research firm, the surveys provide a banquet of data that subscribing clients, including companies from McDonald's and Burger King to Kraft, Heinz and Nestle use to direct the creation and marketing of food products.

Over the past decade, NPD's annual reports have had a direct impact on what we get in grocery stores and fast food restaurants—as well as what we don't. Vlasic, the pickle producer, jumped when the firm observed that among Americans, the most popular way to eat pickles is in a sandwich. Vlasic's Stackers, pickles that are sliced as thinly as sandwich meat, soon made their appearance on supermarket shelves.

NPD's finding that Americans were struggling to find ways to get more veggies into their diet spurred Pillsbury to introduce "Create-A-Meal," a frozen combo of vegetables, pasta or potatoes and sauce to which consumers need add only meat or chicken. "Create-A-Meal" now adds $150 million a year to Pillsbury's coffers.

Prompted by NPD data on Americans' increasing fondness for grilled food, Kraft generated new versions of its market-leading Bull's Eye Bar-b-que Sauce, including Bull's Eye teriyaki and Cajun grilling sauces aimed at consumers on the West: Coast where the popularity of barbecuing was growing fastest.

And when the surveys indicated families were eating more poultry, Burger King brought out the BK Broiler, a chicken sandwich. The chain also nixed following Wendy's lead in introducing pita bread when NPD discovered that pita patrons cut back on orders of French fries, a high-profit item. And Burger King backed away from offering a lean burger similar to McDonald's McLean (since withdrawn) when tracking showed that families were less concerned about fat and sodium than they had been. "Thanks in part to NPD, we didn't go down that road," crows Barry Schwartz, director of consumer research for the chain.

It's just such information and insights that have food giants paying NPD hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. "We get at real behavior," says NPD Vice President Harry Balzer, who has been involved in the surveys and their analyses since he joined the company two decades ago. NPD started tracking restaurant orders in 1973, and in 1980 began tracking general eating trends. "We specialize in finding out what people are doing rather than what they say they are doing," he declares. "Often those two things are quite different."

THE CURRENT EDITION of Eating Patterns in America, a 293-page tome of tables and commentary put together by Balzer and based on data collected in 1997 and 1998, documents that discrepancy. Among the unflattering findings, drawn from more than a million bits of information on 450,000 meals, everything from the way people prepare their eggs to the kind of packaging each ingredient they buy comes in:

o Despite our loud concern about healthier diets, eight of the 10 most popular lunch and dinner items are the same as in 1987: pizza, ham sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, steak, baked chicken and hamburgers. (On the plus side, turkey sandwiches and frozen entrees have replaced sandwiches made of cheese or bologna in the top 10.)

o The number of individuals consuming low- or no-cholesterol, low-sodium and sugar-free items continues to drop from peak levels in 1990.

o We're eating fewer vegetable side dishes, but our devotion to desserts remains unchecked.

o Chicken nuggets fried in fat are the most popular dish at restaurants and soda is the fastest-growing drink,

o Pop tarts are more popular than ever, appearing in 3% of all breakfasts eaten in the U.S., up from 1% in 1990.

BALZER ISN'T SURPRISED. He finds that though a few individuals may be quick to change their habits, as a nation we move very, slowly. "If you bet on what is true today being true in the future, 80% of the time you'll be right," he observes. Clients get the message. "When we work on new product development," acknowledges Pillsbury's Linda Cullen, vice president of consumer knowledge, "we remember not to make anything too strange, that it's important to keep food familiar."

Not all of Balzer's advice is heeded. Alarmed at the rising number of consumers eating in their cars, he urged fast-food companies to make their offerings easier to eat while driving, noting that burger condiments invariably ooze out the sides and pizza toppings frequently slide off the slices. Balzer also recommended that auto makers install food trays as well as cup holders in cars. There were no takers. "No one wants to promote eating in the car because of the liability issue," he says.

THE MOST SURPRISING news of the 1998 report, says Balzer, is that "for the first time, alcohol appears on dinner tables more frequently than coffee." The percentage of people who have a drink with dinner has been steadily rising since 1990. The trend is being driven primarily by those aged 45 and older, who've been reading that a drink a day may help protect against heart disease. In this group, the percentage of those who have a daily drink has nearly doubled, from 10% in 1990 to 19% last year. "That age group tends to glom onto health trends faster than anybody else," Balzer explains. "It was true of low-sodium and low-fat diets. They are always looking for an easier way--other than eating less and exercising more to better health."

Balzer believes the uptick in drinks with dinner also signals another significant shift in our habits: rather than subtracting unhealthy foods or ingredients from the diet, we now prefer to add health-promoting ones. The percentage of people who take a daily vitamin, mineral supplement, herbal product or other dietary aid has hit a new peak: 45%. "I tell my clients, if you put something good in your food, tell consumers about it," Balzer advises.

WHAT DO THE FINDINGS say about coffee? Not that alcohol is replacing java. Rather it reflects coffee's basic problem: it's inconvenient. "You have to make it," says Balzer. Americans increasingly want things that are either easier or cheaper. Coffee is neither and its intake at home has held steady over the years.

The convenience factor is also what's spurring the hottest food trend of the decade: home replacement meals. For the uninitiated, that's industry jargon for take-out foods sold in restaurants and grocery stores. The average American household brings home a restaurant meal about once every 10 days, compared to once every 20 days during the mid-1980s. "This has been a trend for as long as I have been looking at the data," says Balzer. "We still eat most of our meals at home because of budgetary restrictions. But we try not to cook. And if we have to cook, we try not to make anything from scratch." Dinners that include at least one home made item are continuing to slump, he notes, and one-dish meals are on the rise.

LOOKING 100 YEARS INTO the future, Balzer predicts that the number of people who are on a diet will be similar to the current figure: one-third of all women and one-quarter of men will still be bemoaning their weight. Myriad diet plans have been in and out of favor over the past 15 years, Balzer notes, but "these numbers have not budged." Where he does forsee a difference is in food preparation. Indeed, he predicts that the way we prepare our foods will change more than what foods we eat. The kitchen of the next century, says, Balzer, will have more warming and heating than cooking appliances, continuing a trend that started with the introduction of the microwave. "That's another thing I tell my clients," he declares. "Don't ever underestimate how lazy people can be."


FOR ITS CREST (Consumer Reports on Eating Share Trends) survey, NPD culls a mailing list of 300,000 names (gathered from telephone directories, automobile registrations and other sources) I and invites 13,000 families to fill out a form covering foods eaten in the household during a two-week period. There are columns for each family member (usually the mother completes the survey) in which to record meals eaten at restaurants as well as at school, hospitals, employee cafeterias and also at home. For meals taken in restaurants, NPD tracks the name of the eatery, its category (fast food, for example), the meal's cost and what was ordered (NPD assigns numbers to 250 categories of food and beverages, everything from boiled shellfish to croissants).

About 3,000 of the CREST households are asked to participate in the more detailed National Eating Trends (NET) survey. Respondents complete forms noting the ingredients, label, brand and site of purchase of every ingredient in every dish they eat at home as well as which appliance they used to prepare the food and the size of the portion they consumed. The results are mailed to NPD every two weeks. Participants receive no money, but are rewarded with gifts, such as clocks and cookware.

How reliable are these food journals? "When I do it on a ill, daily basis, it's quite accurate," maintains Katie Wagner. "But if I slip up and miss a day, it's not as accurate." The very act of keeping a food diary can change behavior "If I've already written down what we're going to eat for dinner and my husband calls up and says, 'Let's take the family out,' I tell him to forget it, I'm not going to erase it," notes Ingrid Frisinger, a Michigan housewife.

Even so, such journals are much more accurate than phone surveys of dietary recall. "There's a social desirability factor," says Noel Chavez, associate professor of community health sciences at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We all overestimate the good things we do and underestimate the bad things." Balzer puts it more bluntly: "Because what you eat says so much about you, if you ask people in a telephone survey what they prepared for dinner, they lie."


GRAPH: In a Dinner Slump (percent of meals that include side dish)

GRAPH: Fastest Growing Requests By Restaurant Patrons (orders in billions)