Since 2003, food and beverage marketing communications agency Hunter Public Relations has commissioned a study annually to identify the top food news stories according to the opinions of Americans. For the first time in its 16-year history, environmental advocacy broke through as the most memorable story of the year, with news of Plastic Straw Bans across America ranking as 2018’s No. 1 food news story.

In addition, the study found the importance of all food news surged among Americans, with almost half saying that food and nutrition news is more important than any other type of news—marking the highest level of importance seen in more than half a decade.

The study continues the tradition of providing a trended perspective on the magnitude of importance food news has to Americans, the types of news stories resonating today relative to prior years and the media sources used for gaining information on food—and goes on to identify the impact of these stories across the entire continuum of consumer engagement by measuring the degree to which these stories changed consumer opinion, behavior and spurred advocacy.

Hunter, in partnership with Libran Research & Consulting, surveyed 1,001 American adults and asked respondents to select the most recalled news stories of the past 12 months. The data is reviewed overall and by key demographics, including the age cohorts of Millennials/Gen Zs, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers/Matures.

In summer 2018, a video of marine biologists removing a plastic straw stuck in a sea turtle’s nose grabbed national attention and galvanized a movement to ban plastic straws. Shortly after the video went viral, coffee mega retailer Starbucks announced that it would begin to phase out single-use straws from its more than 28,000 locations, with a goal to eliminate plastic straws in all stores by 2020. Two months later, California became the first state to ban full-service restaurants from offering plastic straws to customers, unless they specifically request them. These major moves ignited a firestorm of consumer conversation and media coverage. Plastic straws are recyclable, however, given their size and weight, most are often mechanically sorted out during the recycling process and end up in landfills and the ocean.

On a lighter note, occupying 2018’s No. 2 spot: Dunkin’ Donuts Changes Name to Dunkin.’ Though it’s long been on a first name basis with consumers, Dunkin’ Donuts officially dropped the “Donuts” and became simply “Dunkin'” in September 2018. The new branding conveys the company’s desire to make itself known for more than just doughnuts while embracing Dunkin’s heritage and retaining its recognizable pink and orange iconic logo, introduced back in 1973.

Americans of all ages continue to rank food safety stories high in the survey, and despite environmental advocacy being the most memorable story, food safety (44 percent) and food nutrition/health & wellness (23 percent) are deemed the most important topics addressed in 2018. The Romaine Lettuce Recall came in as the No. 3 food news story of the year, with more than three major recalls announced over the course of the year, and the FDA Suspects Contaminated Whey is Culprit in Salmonella-Related Recalls, ranked as the No. 9 food news story of the year.

This year’s most shareable stories appear to have more “water cooler” potential, meaning that Americans are more open to talking about these stories with friends, family or coworkers as compared to sharing the original articles or sharing personal photos/comments via social media. Two of the most sharable stories of the year included Racial Profiling at Starbucks Spurs Outrage, the No. 4 top food news story of the year, and China Tariff Impacting U.S. farmers at No. 5.

Also included in the top 10 food news stories of 2018:

  • With online retailers and click-and-collect services gaining new users each day, it’s no surprise that Online Grocery Shopping Booms captured the No. 6 spot on this year’s list. According to a study by the Food Marketing Institute conducted by Nielsen, online grocery sales are predicted to capture 20 percent of total grocery retail by 2025 to reach $100 billion in consumer sales.
  • Forget unicorn food and kombucha, THC and CBD infused products were everywhere in 2018, with Cannabis in Food and Beverages snagging the No. 7 spot on the list. Legalization of marijuana continues to spread among states in the U.S. – with recreational marijuana now legal in 10 states – and food and beverage companies are jumping on board. From THC cold brew coffee to cannabis chocolate bars, these specialty food and beverage items are capturing consumer attention.
  • Got milk? It’s up for debate! Coming in at No. 8 is Should Plant-Based ‘Milk’ (Almond, Soy, etc.) Really Be Called Milk? In July 2018, the Food and Drug Administration signaled plans to start enforcing a federal standard that defines “milk” as coming from the “milking source of one or more healthy cows.” Almond, soy, oat and other “milks” are on notice.
  • Combining mayo and ketchup as a dipping sauce is nothing new, but the Launch of Mayochup, the No. 10 food news story on the list, got saucy Americans paying attention. Heinz stoked interest of the new condiment in April 2018 and started a full-on social media frenzy when it finally released Mayochup in the U.S. in September 2018.

To summarize, the top food news stories of 2018 according to the Hunter Public Relations 16th Annual Food News Study are as follows:

Most important food news stories of 2018 ranked by Hunter PR

Importance of food news soars 

This year, 35 percent of Americans feel that food and nutrition news stories are very important, the highest level the study has seen in recent years. This increase traces to a surge by Millennials/Gen Zs with 83 percent saying food news is very important/important in 2018 versus 77 percent in 2017, while the importance attributed to food news stories remained relatively flat for Gen X and Baby Boomers/Matures. With regard to food news’ importance versus other types of news stories, the study found a substantial increase by Millennials/Gen Zs this year, with 64 percent claiming food news is much more/somewhat more important than other types of stories versus 42 percent in 2017, although Boomers are also seeing the increased relevance of this year’s food news stories.

Impact of food news on consumer engagement continuum  

Almost everyone surveyed (86 percent) was aware of at least one important food news story in 2018, and around half of those aware were impacted through changes in opinion, changes in behavior and/or sharing with others. Food trends, nutrition stories and food safety tend to be associated with the strongest changes in opinion, while food safety news and environmental activism is associated with strongest changes in behavior. Opinion change due to these news stories is higher for younger Americans, those with kids and Hispanics.

Popularity of “sharing” a meal on social media

As sharing food experiences through social media appears to become more prominent, the study, for the first time, asked respondents if they post pictures of food they make at home and food they order in restaurants. Almost half of all Americans (47 percent) post their food on social media. However, this activity climbs to 74 percent with Millennials/Gen Z, with nearly 3 in 4 participating in food sharing culture.

Digital media reigns supreme for consuming food news and information 

We continue to see a shift in how Americans access general food news with respondents reporting that they are turning more to digital discovery platforms (such as social media and YouTube) and less to traditional media (such as TV, direct mail, books, magazines or newspapers) for food information. However, older Americans continue to more strongly utilize these more traditional sources of media. In prior years, Hispanics were more frequently early adopters in turning to digital media for food information, however, in 2018 the gap narrowed somewhat, as Hispanics and non-Hispanics are largely turning to similar types of media for food information. Exceptions are podcasts and YouTube, where Hispanics (17 percent and 24 percent) are more likely to turn than non-Hispanics (11 percent and 15 percent).

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