Consumers look to healthy food post-COVID lockdown

Comfort, less healthy foods were popular early in the pandemic

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Jane Dummer, a registered dietitian, says the pandemic has caused changes in Canadian eating habits.

“If you had asked me in September, ‘would we have run out of baking needs, flour and toilet paper in a pandemic?’ I would have said no, especially because originally the pandemic, COVID-19, was really identified as only respiratory, and not gastro-intestinal,” said Dummer during a webinar put on by the Canadian Farm Writers Federation.

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She says when COVID-19 first hit, consumers bought high-sugar, high-fat ingredients and more consumers took up baking and cooked more of their own food.

Why it matters: Quick changes in the market, as have happened due to consumer changes during COVID-19 can be challenging to food supply chains.

They bought supplies and food out of panic in the early days, and certain products quickly sold out.

Now, consumers are shopping with a different cadence, she said.

“For instance, if you were a shopper that shops three different grocery stores, you may only be shopping one grocery store now because the ability to go pick up one ingredient is not as easy as it used to be.”

Health is also beginning to emerge as a key factor, says Dummer. At the start of the pandemic, people looked for comfort food. Now they are leaning toward healthier food choices.

“We had (interest in health) prior to COVID, but since this is a global health crisis, health is top of minds. I believe anybody in the food space who is not identifying health as an emerging key investment is losing opportunity.”

A report from the International Food Information Council, “2020 Food & Health Survey”, found the pandemic has led more than 20 per cent of consumers to eat healthier than usual.

“I would apply that to Canada and say that 30 per cent of consumers are eating healthier than usual.”

As well, a report called U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends: The Impact of COVID-19 from the Food Industry Association, found 36 per cent of consumers said they eat healthier now compared to before COVID-19 became a global concern.

Particularly, younger consumers are placing emphasis on maintaining health while staying at home.

Consumers also seek local ingredients because of concerns over supplies due to borders being closed and re-openings fragile.

When the global pandemic hit, there was an “incredible peace” with the food supply and international trade, she says. Now consumers see rising trade issues and tariffs.

“We are seeing people wanting to purchase ingredients closer to home. Not only consumers, but other businesses want local, plus sustainability. That movement was definitely a trend prior to COVID but is even more applicable now.”

There has been a continued interest in foods with purported healing properties and wellness food to maintain and support immune, digestive and mental health.

“We obviously don’t have a vaccine, but we are learning as we go. We don’t know what to do and so people are trying to maintain their health as much as possible.”

Pulses and seeds are an excellent choice to support immune health, she says, along with all fruits and vegetables because of their vitamin and mineral content.

“When looking at immune health, vitamins and minerals will help support the immune system to keep it strong and fight off infections.”

For digestive health, she suggested consumers look more at fibre, prebiotics and probiotics — ingredients that can be found in apples, barley, oats, wheat and dairy products.

As well, she says uncertainty during the pandemic led consumers to pay more attention to their mental health.

“Within our crops, definitely the pulses, seeds and some of the whole grains for sure (will help consumers with their mental health). Salmon (has also) been studied for years about the omegas and mental health.”

About the author

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Jennifer Glenney

Jennifer lives on a farm in Cayuga, Ontario and has a lot of experience in the many aspects of agriculture.

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