Making Sustainable Food Choices
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We all buy food every day. Our preferences play a powerful role in how retailers and food companies market their products; and in the development of government policies.
What are responsible food choices?
From the consumer point of view, it might seem to be responsible to choose safe and healthy food products, with prices that are in a reasonable relation to the income of the household. However, in our industrialized and globalized world, there lies more behind the word ‘responsibility’.
Food production has an immense impact on our environment due to, for example, energy and water use during processing, or the transportation of products around the globe. Foods of animal origins are additionally criticized for the contribution of stockbreeding to greenhouse gas emissions, the unbalanced conversion of plant proteins from feedstuff into animal protein (especially meat), as well as poor animal well being in intensive livestock farming and excessive use of antibiotics for the prevention of diseases. On the other hand, the cultivation of plant foods can burden the soil and often requires the use of fertilizers and pesticides. However, a lot of the cultivated plants such as corn and soy are actually not supposed for direct human consumption but rather for the production of animal feed, biofuels, or food supplements such as corn syrup.
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Furthermore, industrial food production is often accompanied by the generation of side-streams that are of lower value than the actual product. Some of these side-streams are successfully reused in the food industry, such as whey from cheese production. Others, however, such as pomace from fruit manufacture, or press cakes from plant oil production, are more difficult to reuse in food production and are therefore often disposed, incinerated or used as fertilizer or feedstuff.
What Can We Do
It was recently shown that a drastic reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions could already be achieved with a simple change in everyone’s eating habits. The suggested diet would not only be more sustainable for the planet, but also healthier for the people. It consists of:
- 50 % fruits and vegetables
- Approx. 20 % whole grains
- Only 10 % dairy products and animal-sourced protein
- 10-15 % protein-rich plant foods such as beans, lentils, peas and other legumes. >
- The rest are added plant oils and starch-rich foods such as potatoes.
A reduced production of meat due to changes in consumer behavior would reduce the need for corn and soy as feedstuff, decrease the water use, and lower the emission of CO2 and methane.
Barriers to Responsible Food Choices
In a recent study, by Gifford & Chen (Climatic Change 2017, 140:165-178) potential psychological barriers to more sustainable food choices were classified into four major factors.
1) The strongest barrier is the denial of the existence of the human-made climate change or the lack of belief that individuals can contribute to its deceleration. People who dismiss the problem in the first place are obviously less likely to adapt a more sustainable consumption behavior.
2) In a similar manner, consumers that may actually be willing to change their behavior might adopt environmental actions in a rather symbolical or inconsequential way, so that the impact is limited.
3) Furthermore, behavioral changes can contradict with financial, time and other investments that would have to be made. In fact, the price of a food product is an important factor in the decision making process of consumers, especially since more sustainable products such as organically produced fruits and vegetables might be more expensive than conventional products. This interrelation is often referred to as “willingness to pay”, and it was shown that consumers’ willingness to pay is closely related to their risk perception.
4) Finally, there are interpersonal influences such as the rejection of environmentally responsible behaviors in a persons’ social environment that may prevent such endeavors.
Another important goal to achieve a more sustainable food system is the reduction of food waste. Food gets lost all along from farm to fork. However, consumers play a particular role, accounting for more than 30 % of the total food waste.
Household food waste can be a consequence of inefficient shopping behaviors that result in the purchase of products, which are not used timely and therefore thrown away due to expiration or rotting. However, consumer-related food waste is also being generated in the stores due to the consumers’ craving for perfection. Oddly shaped fruits and vegetables, products close to the best-before date or expiration date, goods in damaged packages and other so-called “suboptimal foods” are perfectly fine to eat but often rejected by consumers and consequently thrown away by producers and retailers. In particular, the best-before date must be better understood by the consumers for what it is: an indication for the quality of a product rather than for its edibility.
The avoidance of food waste through accepting suboptimal foods in stores is often counteracted by the consumers’ perception of food safety and food quality. Faulty packages and products close to or past the best-before date might be perceived as less safe, and other defects such as broken biscuits might be perceived as indicators for low quality or poor handling. The willingness to accept and buy suboptimal foods is therefore to a great extent related to the consumers’ overall motivation to tackle food waste. Studies have also shown that developed cooking skills and a better understanding of the edibility of food products reduce the amount of consumer-related food waste.
Another driver of responsible food choices is food origin. We tend to buy local, as we feel that production and supply chains would lead to more sustainability in the long run. The recent COVID-19 crisis has also shown how resilient our supply chain needs to be and how important it is to be able to count on local sourcing of ingredients and food products. However, while it may be relatively easy to identify the origin of fresh fruits and vegetables, this is not always easy with packaged and processed foods. Consumers count on food labels to be able to identify origin. In the not so distant future, digitalization and the internet of things will facilitate consumers’ knowledge of the details of the supply chain, and will increase further the demand for transparency.
Finally, we can say that we care about what we eat, and how the food is produced, and we are increasingly making choices for more sustainable products, which have less impact on environment and society. But we still are not as informed as we should be, and knowledge, and therefore consumers’ communication and education is an important task to improve food systems sustainability.
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