Consumers increasingly are avoiding unfamiliar ingredients and those with chemical-sounding names, according to new research from the International Food Information Council (IFIC).

The organization surveyed 1,000 consumers in early May and found two-thirds are paying more attention to ingredient lists on foods and beverages than they were a year ago.

“I think that the pandemic was a wakeup call for a lot of people,” says Ali Webster, PhD, director of research and nutrition communications at IFIC. “We have definitely observed an uptick in the public's interest in taking control of their own health.”

Nearly 60% of consumers said they try to choose foods and beverages with clean ingredients when they grocery shop in person, and 48% said the same for online shopping. Most consumers utilize on-package ingredient information sources to help make purchasing decisions, but a growing number also seek information about specific food ingredients online and from friends and family, according to the study.

Definitions of clean ingredients varied. The most common definition was “not artificial or synthetic,” with nearly half of respondents avoiding artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners and preservatives. Ingredients described as organic, fresh and natural also ranked high, along with ingredients that are known to be nutritious and those with easily pronounceable, familiar names.

More than 40% of consumers said they consider themselves to be a clean eater, a term that also encompasses a range of definitions, according to the study. Nearly half said it means not eating foods that are highly processed. Eating fresh produce, eating organic foods and eating foods without GMOs also were common definitions.

Younger, well-educated and tech-savvy consumers with higher incomes are most likely to identify as clean eaters, Webster says.

“These things are somewhat of a proxy for having more resources available to seek out information on this topic,” she says. “They also have the financial means to pay a little bit more for something that’s going to meet their ingredient preferences. This doesn’t necessarily mean their counterparts are less inclined to have that aspiration, but for many people, other priorities like price and convenience come to the forefront.”

The study found clean eating is about more than avoiding the potential negative effects of consuming unfamiliar ingredients. Consumers also are seeking out positive health benefits.

“There’s a lack of specificity in terms of why people are avoiding certain ingredients that are unfamiliar to them,” Webster says. “We see more specific issues like digestive issues, food sensitivities or concerns about the environment fall far behind general health benefits.”