(Aug. 8) Vanity — not health — is gaining ground among the reasons consumers give for eating better, according to a new study.

Whatever the reason, though, a trend toward good diets is good news for the fresh produce industry.

The Harleysville, Pa.-based Natural Marketing Institute’s 2003 Health and Wellness Trends study also finds that consumers care less about “fat-free” and more about other measures of healthfulness. And — more good news for purveyors of fresh fruits and vegetables — more consumers choose foods for their particular health benefits.

About 59% of consumers said improving their appearance was a very important reason to eat healthfully, up from 53% in 2001. While it was the only one of four reasons to jump in importance in 2002, appearance still ranked just third overall.

About 78% of consumers polled thought it was very important to prevent specific health problems, down from 79% in 2001. About 68% did so to treat existing health problems, down from 71%. And 51% said it was very important because of a doctor’s recommendation, down from 56%.

The study found that the emphasis on fat-free and low-fat foods may be a fad that is now fading. About 80% of consumers polled ate low-fat foods in 2002, down from 85% in 2000. About 74% ate fat-free foods, a 10% decline from the year before.

By contrast, 62% ate fortified foods in 2002, up from 50% in 2001. And 58% ate functional foods, almost double the previous year’s 31%.

Food has the edge on dietary supplements when it comes to preventing disease, the study found. Between 52% and 60% of consumers said they would use specific foods to prevent cancer, high blood pressure, obesity and overweight, high cholesterol and heart disease. Between 39% and 46% would use supplements to prevent those diseases.

Also of interest to the produce industry, 76% of consumers polled associated cranberries with bladder health, 38% associated antioxidants with cancer prevention and 37% associated lutein with eye health.

Other study findings show consumers believe that specific foods will improve their health. Two out of three have added foods to their diets specifically for their health benefits. Two out of three say they avoid some foods for health reasons, and half say they know they should eat better but don’t. About 31% say they don’t get enough fiber, 28% enough antioxidants, 25% enough Vitamin C and 24% enough lutein.