Are you familiar with the NPD Group, Inc.? It’s a leading global market research company. It was founded in 1967 and provides market information and advisory services to help companies make better business decisions. Using actual sales data from retailers and distributors as well as consumer-reported purchasing behavior, NPD offers consumer panel and retail sales tracking services, special reports, analytic solutions, and advisory services. Harry Balzer is NPD’s Chief Industry Analyst and Vice President.
I have had the good fortune, and the distinct pleasure, to be in the audience for several of Harry’s presentations on behalf of NPD. He is a phenomenal speaker, and he loves his material. He loves his data. In my opinion, he does for food what Freakonomics does for economics. Shows us the “hidden side” (of what people really eat). As a registered dietitian, I’m always fascinated by what Harry has to say. Or I should say, what the data says and how Harry explains it. For example, take his video about the #1 food on Super Bowl Sunday.
I often show this video to students or other audiences at the beginning of a presentation to help “set the stage” and help them think about food (and nutrition) differently. Take a step back from what they think they know, what they hear in the news, and begin to think more critically.
I had the opportunity to sit and talk with Harry face-to-face recently. I hope you enjoy a small portion of our conversation.
Harry, I’m fascinated by the data and by your stories about “what people really eat” because it’s so different from what we assume based on what we hear every day in the media. Tell me why this topic is so interesting to you.
First of all, everyone has an opinion about how we eat, because we all eat. This is a subject with broad appeal. We all have opinions and we all talk about it. Second, most people who talk about what we eat don’t actually have any data….because it’s too hard to collect. Third, eating is a sign of who you are. It says a lot about who you are and so we’re very careful about how we project ourselves to others and society. Eating is very private, very personal. Food is fashion!
It is true that everyone thinks they’re an “expert” in food – because everyone eats. And while registered dietitians are the experts in food and nutrition, in reality, I suppose each person is their own food expert. Especially given the fact that they may not be telling the entire truth or story about what they’re eating.
It’s not that people are lying, they are just not reporting everything. Partly because it’s too private, and partly because sometimes we’re just not aware of what we’re doing. Depending on the time of day or meal, we may or may not remember all the details because it depends on our thought process at the time. For example, breakfast might be routine and therefore easy to remember, but dinner may vary quite a bit and therefore be hard to remember, and subsequently, hard to report.
Considering these and other barriers to getting accurate information, tell me a little bit about how NPD collects data.
NPD has been collecting data since March 1st 1980. We collect 14 days of behavior, from the person who prepares the meal, not the eater, because they know more than the eater. For example, if you ate a sandwich that someone else prepared, you may not know for sure what condiments or what types of ingredients were used to make the sandwich. We need at least 14 days of behavior collected in order to get 60% of the rotation of the nightly menu (due to the variety). We oversample (collect more data and throw away data) in order to be representative of the US population. For example, it’s harder to get data from some groups than others (young men vs. older people).
As a dietitian who works with the media regularly, I struggle with the way health and nutrition information is often portrayed in the media. All too often it is sensationalized, which ultimately isn’t helping the public get the facts and make changes for better health. Talk to me about how and why your data is different from what we hear in the media.
The media is NOT interested in the obvious, but food and nutrition experts should be interested in the obvious. What I mean by this is that the media doesn’t care that 75% of us are still eating turkey at Thanksgiving. Instead, they are interested in something new and different that some people might be eating. However a dietitian should be interested that most of us are still eating turkey because nutrition advice is best when it’s based on what people are actually doing.
I find this interesting because, to me, the obvious is no longer obvious because of the how the media portrays food and nutrition information! That’s why I feel like the NPD data you talk about is actually revealing the “hidden side” of food/eating.
I agree that dietitians work best when we are dealing with what people really eat – that’s how we counsel individuals – we start with what they are doing and help them with solutions that will give them the best return on their investment.
How could the NPD insight and information help dietitians and other health professionals when working with the public?
The driving force of our lives are habits. It’s so hard to change or break a habit, but the habit of eating includes ‘trying new things’. For example, kale is the new ‘thing’ but onions are still the #1 vegetable eaten. If you try kale and it serves a basic value like saving you money or saving you time – it will become a new habit! Otherwise it is just novelty.
So where does health fit into the equation?
I put health under novelty/new! However, healthy foods don't necessarily equal healthy habits:
So the trifecta would be something that is new (and healthy) and saves you time and money! This makes perfect sense to me and fits with what I’ve seen as I’ve counseled clients over the past 20 years.
Can you share more examples of how this information can help food and nutrition experts reach out to the public with meaningful advice?
Absolutely - Here are a few more examples:
We talk about dining out in restaurants, but most of our eating is actually in the home. Our data shows that foods that don’t require cooking are growing in popularity:
Here's another bit of food for thought - the impact Baby Boomers have on the food industry:
If you're like me, and you find this kind of information fascinating, then you should definitely check out the NPD website and sign up for NPD news and their blog, and follow NPD on Twitter, Facebook and You Tube. And if you're doing media interviews, social media posts, presentations or writing blogs or articles, keep in mind that what people really eat is what really matters!