The biggest food story of 2018 isn't about what you eat

An environmental issue--straw bans--tops the annual ranking for the first time

By Published on .

From Starbucks to American Airlines, dozens of big-name brands announced plastic straw bans this year, bringing attention to an environmental cause that, according to a new survey, is starting to break through. The issue tops the list of the most-remembered food stories of 2018, with 51 percent of U.S. adults aware of it, according to Hunter Public Relations.

This marks the first year an environmental issue led the list, which the MDC Partners-owned PR shop has published every year since 2003.

One reason Americans recalled the straw news was a widely-shared video of marine biologists removing a straw stuck in the nose of a sea turtle. The video was shot in 2015 but continued to garner millions of views this year. And bans have started to take hold. Starbucks in July said it would begin eliminating single-use plastic straws, instead offering strawless lids or straws made from another material. And California passed a law that starting in 2019 makes it the first state to ban full-service restaurants from offering plastic straws (unless customers ask for them).

The study, fielded online Oct. 25 to 30, asked 1,001 American adults about top food stories that ran over the previous 12 months and was conducted by Hunter with Libran Research & Consulting. Of those surveyed, 35 percent classified food and nutrition stories as "very important," up from 26 percent in 2017 and the highest level in recent years according to Hunter, which does work for a variety of food industry brands.

Dunkin' Donuts dropping Donuts from its name and romaine lettuce recalls ranked second and third on Hunter's list. Hunter works with a number of food industry clients and therefore conducts an annual review of the news in the sector.

Among millennials, the top two stories were Dunkin' dropping Donuts from its name (36 percent), followed closely by the plastic straw ban (35 percent). Among Gen Xers, the plastic straw ban (48 percent) and Dunkin's name change (44 percent) were the top two stories. The group of people the survey labels baby boomers/mature adults, meanwhile, put plastic straws first (66 percent), followed by the romaine lettuce recall (55 percent), with Dunkin's name change coming in third (53 percent).

For the first time, people were asked how often they post on social media pictures of food they are making or food they order at restaurants. Forty-seven percent said they do so. Millennials and Gen Z led the pack, with nearly three-quarters of the group posting their food images (no surprise there).

Hunter said none of the companies or brands mentioned in the top stories of 2018 are among its clients. The agency works with marketers including Amazon (which delivers groceries and owns Whole Foods Market), Diageo, Keurig Dr. Pepper, Post, Pompeian, Smithfield Foods and Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce.

The agency also tracks how Americans, ahem, consume food news. For general food news, TV remains the top source, with 45 percent citing it, up from 42 percent in 2017. Social media and websites each garnered 31 percent. Various forms of print media have less of a hold, with declines for both magazines and newspapers. However, 12 percent said they turn to books, up from 10 percent in the prior two years. (In January, the agency plans to share findings on how Americans' food news consumption has shifted since 2013 through a webinar.)

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