30 Jun 2023 — Purchasing data of 8,400 German households show that almost half behaved unsustainably due to high consumption of meat or sweet snacks. At the same time, consumers stated they intentionally reduced their meat consumption and avoided foods that are harmful to health.
People with more positive attitudes and intentions to buy healthy and sustainable foods had more positive sustainable purchases, but food values and intentions did not wholly translate into actual behavior.
Only a small part of consumers followed relatively sustainable diets, with high levels of organic food, low levels of meat, sweet snacks, alcohol and processed foods.
“The analysis is a vital starting point for designing a holistic policy instrument mix to close the gaps and to reach a sustainable transformation of the food system,” note the researchers.
The research resulted in five consumer segments: 2% of consumers had a high consumption of organic foods, while 8% were medium organic food buyers, “heavy meat buyers” accounted for 25% of the sample, “sweet snack enthusiasts” for 20% and the remaining 46% were categorized as “mainstream consumers.”
Healthy or sustainable diets?
The study suggests that many consumers behave sustainably in only one dimension at a time, either climate-friendly, healthy or environmentally friendly.
Moreover, the small share of the sample with relatively sustainable food consumption still purchased considerable amounts of beef and cheese.
Gaps between stated and actual behavior were highest for the high sweets and meat buyers. A third of these groups agreed to avoid everything in their diet that is harmful to their health, “even though they showed rather unhealthy consumption patterns,” say the researchers.
A third of people with the highest meat purchases said they consciously reduce meat consumption.
The attitude-behavior gap was limited for the purchase of organic food.
The authors suggest that future research determines how the attitude-behavior gap develops over time and how consumers with positive attitudes toward different sustainable production methods can be motivated to transform these intentions into purchasing behavior.
Consumer attitudes and behavior
Medium and high organic food buyers had high preferences for local, natural and fair trade food, placing a great importance on environmental protection. A large share of this group had high incomes and was likelier to be in the youngest age group (under 40).
However, the researchers noted that buying organic food did not align with low meat consumption, as consumers bought relatively high amounts of beef and poultry.
Heavy meat buyers had a low awareness of environmental issues and a limited preference for fair trade food. A third of this group reported intentionally reducing their meat consumption. According to the researchers, the diet of this segment causes high amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
The group spending the most on sweet snacks, attaches low importance to environmental protection, has an average intention to reduce meat and prefers convenient and fast food while paying the lowest prices for food, on average.
At the same time, this group’s diet had a low climate impact as beef and cheese consumption was limited. Moreover, the researchers note that the segment consumed a high proportion of sweets and processed foods with relatively low greenhouse gas emissions.
Mainstream consumers were slightly more environmentally oriented than the meat and sweet snack segments. The researchers found a large share of people over 70 in this group.
Due to the study setup, the study could not explain the causes behind those differences, caution the authors.
Household panel data
In the study published in Frontiers in Nutrition, the authors analyzed the purchases of 8,400 households in household panel data from Germany over one year. These data showed total food purchases, organic versus conventional food bought and information on specific food categories, such as sweets and meat.
Participating households used an electronic device to register their food purchases while inputting information on price and store name.
Moreover, the head of each household filled out a written questionnaire on topics such as consumer lifestyle, values and attitudes toward food and socio-demographic characteristics.
To determine sustainable food consumption behavior, the researchers used three indicators. The purchase of organic products was used as a proxy for diets’ environmental impacts, buying fresh meat was used to identify a diet’s climate impact and sweet snack purchases to assess the healthiness of a diet.
For each indicator, the researchers compared the expenditures on the different categories with total food spending in the year.
The authors note choosing three dimensions of sustainability is a useful starting point, but it oversimplifies the complex issue of healthy diets. They recommend future research adds a dimension to identify how food waste behavior relates to healthy and environmentally-friendly food choices.
Due to data unavailability, they could not include processed meat purchases in the study, which may have biased the outcomes.
Global food systems transition
Authors of an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences share their perspective on the food system transition, responding to the EAT-Lancet review of what constitutes a healthy diet from a sustainable food system.
“The global food systems transition calls for local, national and global solutions, based on interdisciplinary research collaboration and transnational scaling-up of national and local policies,” argue the authors.
“This requires a restoration of the balance between economic and public interest, strengthening the regulatory power of public food system actors and increased corporate accountability.”
They explain that what entails a healthy and environmentally sustainable diet depends on local contexts, stating that research and policies should use metrics on sustainable and healthy food choices that accurately estimate possible trade-offs.
Moreover, sustainable diets require a systems approach, note the authors. Science needs to scale up, minimize fragmentation and strengthen its interface with food production and policy stakeholders to go beyond price, convenience and taste.
They hold food system actors accountable for the sustainable food transition in their positions in national and international supply chains. Governments should initiate the change – e.g., through economic interventions or policies – as this goes beyond the influence of citizens and is not of primary interest to supply chain actors.
“Corporate actors have the power, public actors the responsibility and citizens the right to enjoy ethically responsible and economically affordable foods as a public good,” conclude the authors.
By Jolanda van Hal
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