Consumers ignore dates on shelf-stable foods as they try to save money, study finds

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Dive Brief:

  • Half of consumers look for cheaper options at the store, and six in 10 buy foods that have reduced prices because they’re about to expire, according to a new study from Attest. More than 46% eat food past its expiration date, with 16.6% starting to do so in the last six months.
  • Consumers are also looking to cut costs by lowering their standards. Just 23.6% said they try to buy from environmentally friendly brands — a decrease of 26.4% in six months. And the number of consumers who say they are following a meat-free or flexitarian diet is down about a quarter.
  • After two years of banner sales, inflation and a slowing economy are forcing CPG companies to change their strategies. Many have raised prices across the board, reduced product sizes and shifted gears to promote brand value.

Dive Insight:

This year, consumers are looking to get the best bang for their buck. As inflation strains spending budgets with an average 14.5% increase in weekly food costs in the last six months, they want less expensive food, will eat what they buy for longer, and are eschewing certifications and eating styles with premium price tags, according to Attest.

The report, which came from interviews with more than 2,000 working-age U.S. residents, shows 46.7% are sticking to a budget for groceries, making several shifts in what they buy. Most people say they are cutting back on premium brands (61.3%) and alcohol (48.9%), but more than one in five say they are buying fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. The only category that is seeing any general uptick in sales is value and private label brands, but the overall pullback in spending is keeping that increase small — just 0.4%.

Today’s consumers are also trying to get more value from what they eat by purchasing discounted items closer to the expiration date and eating items after they have expired. But the results show that this is more to take advantage of shelf-stable food consumers have already purchased, and less about taking a gamble with safety. A majority of consumers (56.5%) said they would eat potato chips and other snacks after their expiration date, as well as cereal (50.4%). Nearly half said they would eat cookies and candy after the expiration date (47.9%). Far fewer said they’d eat past-date items that are perishable, including bread, yogurt and fresh meat. 

Date labels have a history of being difficult for consumers to understand. A 2021 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior showed only 64% of U.S. adults could correctly explain the meaning of the “Best If Used By” label — which appears on shelf-stable items and indicates the amount of time manufacturers feel food will be in optimal conditions — and 44.8% could correctly explain the “Use By” label — which indicates when perishable products will spoil or become unsafe. So most consumers in the Attest study are being frugal in a safe way, and nearly half said they are throwing away two or fewer unconsumed food items per week.

It’s not surprising that more consumers are also cutting back on pricier certifications, like organic foods, and more expensive plant-based diets. Once meteoric sales growth in organic food slowed to 2% last year, according to the Organic Trade Association. And as plant-based sales growth has also decelerated, more people told Attest they classified themselves as “meat eaters” — 72.6% in 2022 versus 63.5% in 2021. While plant-based food tends to be more expensive, since manufacturers are still scaling up using new processes and ingredients, prices of traditional animal-based products have been more hurt by inflation, according to an analysis from DataWeave. Analysts say that while higher prices will cause consumers to “trade down” to less expensive forms and cuts of meat, it isn’t enough to make them give it up.

What may be a little less safe, however, is another way consumers are saving money. Two in five consumers overall and more than half of consumers aged 55 to 64 — 52% — told Attest higher prices are leading them to buy less food. In a summary of the results, Attest noted this could be a warning for increasing malnutrition. More than 33.8 million U.S. residents lived in food-insecure households in 2021, according to USDA statistics. And less expensive food options tend to be less nutritious, meaning the quality of food that people are eating could be declining.

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About the Author

Jervie David Montejar
A food lover who wants to try every delicious dishes around him and spread the news to everyone to try it as well. Finding the latest trends about food and restaurants around Cebu and the rest of the world :) "Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first." -Ernestine Ulmer
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