“How Americans relate to what they eat has undergone a substantial shift in the past couple of decades. What was once a source of fuel for everyone, and a source of solace and pleasure for many people, is now a vehicle for self-expression, a point of pride, a political statement, a declaration of identity and much more. Health seems to be on more consumers‰Ûª minds, too, although their definition of health, and their perception of what‰Ûªs good for them, has shifted in varying and often contradictory ways.”

With food now woven into many Americans‰Ûª sense of identity and place in society, Nation‰Ûªs Restaurant News takes a look at this state of affairs and what restaurants should be doing about it.

Food as self-expression

“If you‰Ûªre concerned about the environment, you might be a vegetarian. If animal welfare is your cause, then you could well be a vegan. Into CrossFit? Then Paleo‰Ûªs the diet for you. ‰ÛÏYou are what you eat‰Û might be a clichÌ©, but these days it‰Ûªs truer than ever as many Americans tout their dietary preferences loudly,” Bret Thorn writes for NRN’s “Beyond fuel: Modern eating linked to identity, community.”

Psychologist William Hallman, department chair of human ecology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., said people‰Ûªs eating habits help them identify who they are on many levels.

“Now that food is fashionable, a certain amount of diners want to be trend leaders by being the first to try new foods, while others want to try new things for the fun of it. This consumer shift has been exhibited in recent years by widespread acceptance of formerly obscure ingredients such as hummus ‰ÛÓåÊnow a supermarket staple ‰ÛÓ and quinoa,” Thorn writes.

The majority of consumers are looking for food adventure

According to a recently conducted survey by the National Restaurant Association on consumption of ethnic food, 20% of respondents defined themselves as adventurous diners who ‰ÛÏreally enjoy trying new dishes that [they have] never had before.‰Û Another 56% of the 1,000 people surveyed said they were open to trying new dishes occasionally.

Culinary adventurism is even more prevalent among younger customers. The NRA ethnic foods survey found that 29% of respondents said they had tried a new ethnic food ‰ÛÓ defined as food that originated in a different country or that is specific to a certain region within the United States ‰ÛÓ within the past year. But that figure jumped to 37% for people aged 25 to 34 and to 48% for people aged 18 to 24.

“Those age groups, as well as people under 18, are also the ones most likely to share pictures of those new foods on social media, adding to their reputation as adventurers and giving restaurants new reasons to offer foods their guests might not have tried before,” Thorn reports.

Laurie Demeritt, CEO of consumer research firm The Hartman Group, pointed to a recent report on health & wellness by her company that found a third of respondents have tried a different customized eating approach over the past 12 months ‰ÛÓ ‰ÛÏdoing Paleo for a while, being a vegan for a couple weeks, kind of trying it on and then discarding it and moving on to something else, since they don‰Ûªt really necessarily know what‰Ûªs going to be right for them,‰Û she said.

Restaurants should be aware that such life choices could change every few weeks, so rather than committing to catering to a specific dietary choice, they should have the flexibility in place within their systems to adjust to whatever their customers are looking for, Demeritt said.

In fact, according to the Hartman Group‰Ûªs recent report, the 13% of consumers most engaged with health & wellness think of it as ‰ÛÏbeing attuned and connected to mind, body, soul, relationships and the wider world.‰Û This mindset on health and wellness translates to buying sustainable, humanely raised and locally sourced items all fit into their notion of their own well-being, and what Demeritt refers to as ‰ÛÏfresh, real [and] minimally processed foods.

With food playing more of a role in people’s identities, it’s no wonder that AudienceSCAN found 4.8% of consumers consider themselves to be “foodies.” Advertisers need to reach this growing crowd. They learn about events (and restaurant openings) from the newspaper (28%) and city guides (8%). In the past month, 31% of Foodies took action based on daily deals they saw. In the past year, 60% of Foodies took action after reading newspaper (print, online, mobile or tablet) ads.

AudienceSCAN data is available as part of a subscription to AdMall for Agencies. Media companies can access AudienceSCAN data through the Audience Intelligence Reports inåÊAdMall.