WASHINGTON, April 23 (UPI) -- To-go food, like granola bars, Lunchables, and frozen entrees, are more common at the dinner table than ever before, and companies that want to take advantage of this new trend should focus on marketing the nutritional value of this food group, according to a study released this week.
The survey of 500 grocery shopping Americans conducted in early April by research company Insight Express was aimed at teaching companies "how to build better to-go products," said Lee Smith, Insight president.
The study highlighted Americans' desire for convenience as they lead increasingly busy lifestyles. Md-based Giant Food LLC vice president Barry Scher said the reason for to-go foods' popularity at his stores is "because people are busy."
"There are a lot of busy households, with a lot of kids doing after-school activities. From snacking to meal preparation, people want it to be easy," he said.
But while the desire for convenience was not a surprise, the prominent role convenience takes at mealtime was.
"We were shocked to find that 26 percent of consumers don't view to-go foods as a compliment to their meals. They use them as a meal replacement," Smith said.
Before this discovery, companies commonly viewed these single-serving, individually-wrapped foods as a snack consumers would bring to work or eat along the way, he continued.
Many shoppers at the Safeway in Washington, D.C.'s Watergate building were not surprised by the findings, because they are guilty of eating to-go food meals as well.
"I buy Skippy peanut butter bars and keep them in my desk (at work)," suburban Maryland resident Lisa Dreisch said. "Sometimes I eat Slimfast meal-to-go bars as a meal; maybe three times a month," she said.
"When you're having a busy day, it's just so much easier to put something in the microwave and come back for it," Dreisch said, instead of cooking a meal.
Nine out of ten of the people surveyed said they have purchased to-go food, and "the average household spends $92.55 per month on to-go foods," Smith said.
For the grocery shopper, the to-go choices seem almost endless. Giant's online shopping site, Peapod, lists 27 different varieties of Oscar Mayer Lunchables, for instance.
The reasons why people choose to-go food vary. Safeway shopper Emilie Moghadam, a Washington resident, cited price and convenience as the most important factors. "Taste, not so much, unfortunately," she said. Smith's study found that price and nutritional value were major considerations at the grocery store.
According to the study, "contrary to the current hype, carbs come in fifth when consumers were asked to rank nutritional importance," finishing behind fat, calories, sodium, and vitamins and minerals.
"What this all means is that consumers are more willing to accept to-go foods if they are viewed as healthy," Smith said.
Giant has found that convenience foods are "very popular," according to Scher. "It's continuing a trend of the last few years, which is that consumers are looking for quick and easy and healthy solutions," he said, echoing Smith's findings.
"People want to be in and out of the store and the kitchen," Scher said. "And health concerns have dictated what's happening in snack food lines. There are more offerings that are healthy and quick to fix."
"People are clamoring for healthier options; they want to live longer," Scher said.
However, Smith's study found that almost 90 percent of people surveyed acknowledge that to-go foods are not necessarily healthier than meals prepared at home.
To combat the unhealthy habits to-go foods foster, the Cleveland Clinic Heart Center, a top heart clinic, devoted part of its Web site to "A quick and healthy guide for those on the go."
"Not all convenience foods are created equal," the site warned. "Most convenience foods on the market today are laden with saturated fats, sodium and sugar and provide little to no nutritional value."
The solution to this disconnect, Smith said, is to work toward increasing the nutritional value of this category of foods. This way, companies can "change how (consumers) think about to-go foods," he said.