What Do Sustainability and Nutrition Mean for Consumer Food Values and Behaviors?

Sustainability has evolved from a buzzword to an imperative in today’s global marketplace, topping nearly every 2020 food industry trends and key issues forecast. Conversations about the impacts of diet on the environment have moved into the mainstream, and today’s consumers want to know what’s in their food, where it’s coming from, how it’s grown and produced and by whom.

To help better understand changing consumer food values, FoodMinds conducted a survey[i] to learn how U.S. consumers perceive the intersection of nutrition and sustainability, how it impacts their food choices, and what may help accelerate the widespread adoption of healthier, more sustainable diets. The findings shed light on how companies and commodities can best articulate their role in offering foods and beverages that are both nutritious and sustainably produced in a way that resonates with consumers.

Key findings include:

  • Consumers are interested in sustainable foods but are unsure of how to define or identify them. 66% of consumers are interested in learning more about sustainable foods, but most (fewer than half) don’t know how to seek more information. They often describe sustainability in terms of process and environment – how and where a food is produced. They also internalize sustainability in terms of the ‘health halo’ effect – with associations like “organic,” “natural,” “Non-GMO” – which drives sustainability as a type of “lifestyle” value. However, the lack of clarity on benefits drives skepticism and is a limiting factor in sustainability’s impact on purchase decisions today. Companies making sustainability claims should be sure they are well-defined and substantiated, and that supporting information is readily available for consumers.
  • Certain consumer segments are more likely to prioritize sustainable foods. While about one-third (29%) of all consumers surveyed reported they would start buying a food or beverage just because it was more sustainable, certain segments of the population are highly motivated to purchase foods they view as more sustainable, and conversely, avoid foods deemed less sustainable. Five types of consumers were identified in this survey along a spectrum of sustainability and nutrition considerations – the “Practical Shopper (23% of consumers surveyed),” who is unfamiliar with and unlikely to seek more information on sustainability; the “Passive Buyer (34%),” who gravitates to whatever food is readily available without strong consideration for sustainability or nutrition; the “Health Conscious Eater (14%),” who is interested in sustainability but more driven by health and nutrition claims; the “Curated Diner (16%),” who is trend-driven and most compelled by people-centric aspects of sustainability (fair labor, social justice, sourcing); and the “Karmic Naturalist (13%),” who is passionate about sustainability and environmental practices. While “Karmic Naturalists” are intrinsically motivated by a desire to feel good about their food choices, Curated Diners are more extrinsically driven, viewing food as an extension of identity and a way to reflect their values to others. Tailoring health and sustainability messages to specific types of consumers may help optimize a product’s relevance and appeal.
  • The value of sustainability must align with consumers’ internal motivations and priorities to drive purchase decisions. Sustainability has a strong resonance with aspirational benefits to personal and planetary health; 61% of consumers associate sustainability with being “environmentally responsible” and 43% associate it with being healthy. However, more functional benefits like affordability and convenience are perceived as being in opposition to sustainability – only 10% of consumers associate sustainability as being affordable. Given the reality that making food more sustainably often does cost more to produce given costs of research, innovation, supply chain changes, etc., food and beverage companies should focus on communicating the value of sustainable, healthy food to consumers.
  • Food and beverage companies have a tremendous opportunity to educate consumers and support healthy, sustainable choices. Fifty-four percent of consumers believe that companies have the primary responsibility to promote nutritious foods, and 46% believe that companies have the primary responsibility for promoting sustainable foods. Yet, only 1 in 5 consumers turn to companies for sustainability information. They are primarily looking toward authoritative bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (43%) and the US Department of Agriculture (39%) but find the available information confusing and challenging to navigate. Companies that provide transparent, credible and meaningful information about how and why their products are nutritious and sustainably produced are well-positioned for competitive advantage in an increasingly complex and crowded marketplace.

As consumers continue to strive for personal and environmental well being, it is essential that companies understand and articulate the impact and role of their food choices within healthy, sustainable food systems.

Interested in learning more? FoodMinds has dedicated experts in healthy, sustainable food systems. Connect with them at ContactUs@foodminds.com. And if you’re attending this year’s Future Food-Tech, don’t miss our Sustainable Protein Roundtable on March 19th!

Andrea Carrothers, MS, RD is a Senior Vice President at FoodMinds, based in Denver.

[i] FoodMinds|SMS Sustainable Nutrition Survey of 1,003 U.S. household food purchase decision makers, ages 21-69, conducted July 2018.