Better food, more $$: Do people pony up?

People want better food and companies want Chipotle-like growth. But wanting something better and wanting to pay for something better are two very different things. Or are they?

A full 88 percent of consumers say they're willing to pay a premium to some degree for foods with healthy attributes, according to Nielsen's online poll of 30,000 people in 60 countries.

health food vs. junk food
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Interestingly, readiness to shell out declines with age. Consumers under 20 and millennials 21 to 34 years old are most inclined to pay more.

"While age often dictates a need for foods that contain certain health attributes, it is the youngest consumers who are most willing to back up their sentiments with their wallets," said Susan Dunn, Nielsen's executive vice president of global professional services, in a release. "As Millennials' purchasing power increases, manufacturers and retailers that make the effort to understand and connect with this generation's needs increase their odds of success."

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Nielsen did find a gap between people saying a healthy characteristic is very important and being very willing to pay more for it. The exception to this was organic food.

Respondents also ranked a wide range of health attributes as very important to not important in their buying decisions.

Food with all natural ingredients and those without GMOs ranked as very important to the highest portion of people at about 43 percent each of respondents.

The absence of artificial colors and flavors followed closely as did foods made of veggies and fruits.

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A willingness to shell out for this high-quality food is good news for restaurants and consumer-packaged foods that have been revamping items and investing in new revenue streams, like organics, to appeal to today's customer.

Chipotle Mexican Grill, in particular, has grown at a swift pace by stressing its food integrity and convincing customers that sustainable food is worth the extra money. It is working toward having a GMO-free menu, a goal it's largely met.

"Any restaurant operator with half a brain who has watched Chipotle's success is thinking, 'How can I get some of that success?" said Bob Derrington, a restaurant analyst at Wunderlich Securities.

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In December, CKE Restaurants' Carl's Jr. launched an all-natural burger after the fast-food company's research showed that Millennials were very interested in food sourcing and clean food.

"You have to come out with the products that consumers want," said CKE Restaurants CEO Andy Puzder at the time in a phone interview.

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Meanwhile, General Mills announced last year its flagship original Cheerios product would drop GMOs from its ingredient list.

Whole Foods Market also highlighted this transparency through its commitment in 2013 to require brands it carries to show whether they contain genetically modified organisms.

Meanwhile, Panera Bread has committed to a range of animal welfare reforms and moves aimed at improving the food in its supply chain. It said it aims for its entire pork supply to be antibiotic-free and sourced from farms where pregnant pigs roam freely in group housing. It's also worked at eliminating artificial colors, sweeteners, flavors and preservatives from its food.

"The consumer in the end is looking not only for the great food and initiatives that we've been talking about but also transparency," said Blaine E. Hurst, Panera's executive vice president of technology and transformation, in a phone interview last month.

Companies looking to mine as much as possible out of the health-conscious consumer would be smart to look beyond just North America.

About eight in 10 people surveyed in Europe and North America said they would be willing to pay a premium for healthy food. This number ticked as high as 94 percent for Latin America, 93 percent for Asia-Pacific and 92 percent for Africa/Middle East.