Where Do Sustainable and Healthy Food Choices Intersect?

Healthy food choices are often on many of our minds as we plan what our next meal will include. Many of us are also focused on sustainability and the environmental aspects of our food chain that impact the planet. We may practice environmentally friendly habits, like recycling, shopping at farmers’ markets and buying foods with less packaging. But the intersection of these two diet-choice aspects­—health and environmental sustainability—and the lenses through which we evaluate both, are worth investigating. Is one more important that the other? Do other factors such as taste, price and convenience still significantly impact our food choices too?

Findings from the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2019 Food and Health Survey as well as another IFIC Foundation survey, Consumer Attitudes and Perceptions on Healthy and Environmentally Sustainable Diets (to be released this fall), help shed light on these issues.

Sticking with sustainability

The 2019 Food and Health Survey found that environmental sustainability was a significant purchase driver, with over half (54 percent) of people saying it was important that the foods they purchase and consume be produced in an environmentally sustainable way.

Of those who believe environmental sustainability is important, the top three food characteristics that people use to identify these foods are “being labeled as being locally grown” (51 percent), “being labeled as sustainably sourced” (47 percent), and “being labeled as non-GMO/not bioengineered” (47 percent). Interestingly, 41 percent of respondents look for recyclable packaging and 35 percent look to make purchases with minimal packaging.

This year, the survey also asked consumers whether they find it difficult to know whether their food choices are environmentally sustainable. Over six in ten (63 percent) of consumers agreed that it is hard for consumers to know whether the food choices they make are environmentally sustainable. As a follow-up, we asked this 63 percent of respondents would environmental sustainability have a greater influence on food choices if it was easier to know which choices were in fact environmentally sustainable. Again, over six in ten (63 percent) agreed with this statement.

You might wonder how the desire to make environmentally sustainable purchases stacks up against “champion purchase drivers”— that is, taste and price. Taste continues to be a top driver (as it has every year the Food and Health Survey has been conducted), with a whopping 86 percent saying it has some impact on their buying decisions (up from 81 percent in 2018); the other factor, price, was cited by 68 percent of consumers as a top driver of food choices.

Going toe to toe with taste and price continues to be tough for other drivers. Convenience has an impact on 57 percent of consumers, healthfulness impacts 62 percent of consumers, and environmental sustainability impacts almost one third of consumers (27 percent). This number dropped from last year’s survey, in which 39 percent of respondents noted that sustainability was a driver for them. The new addition of the word “environmental” before sustainability may be why this decrease occurred.

Picking our proteins

There is no doubt that having a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and lean protein is part of a healthy lifestyle, but food trends and changing habits reflect consumer perceptions of healthfulness for themselves as well as the planet. For example, there has been an increase in conversations that eating even more plant-based foods could help us be healthier and act as better environmental stewards. This year’s Food and Health Survey found that 73 percent of consumers are familiar with the term “plant-based diet” and over half are interested in learning more.

With this in mind, the IFIC Foundation conducted a follow-up survey asking consumers more about attitudes and behaviors regarding plant- and animal-based proteins and the connection between their consumption with environmental sustainability.

We asked consumers to rank aspects of an environmentally sustainable diet that are important to them. The top factors were “What I eat is healthy for the planet” and “What I eat is nutritious.” Factors such as “The food I eat has minimal packaging” and “The food packaging is recyclable” trailed behind, but still had a considerable impact.

When looking to see what comes to mind for consumers when they aim to make environmentally sustainable animal protein purchases (food and beverages such as poultry, pork, beef, lamb, cows’ milk, eggs, or seafood), we saw that consumers are seeking labels such as “no added hormones” (50 percent), “grass-fed animals” (40 percent) and “locally raised” (32 percent).

While almost all people consume protein from animal sources (92 percent), a large number also consume protein from plant sources (72 percent consume protein sources such as tofu, soy milk, beans, tempeh, nuts, seeds or legumes). Notably, we also found that 66 percent of consumers think an environmentally sustainable diet can include both protein from animal sources and protein from plant-based sources; 10 percent do not think so and 24 percent are not sure.

Where are our diets headed?

As we all do the “healthy food shuffle” and simultaneously try to support the health of our planet, there are many factors to consider. While it is interesting to see that environmental sustainability is an important purchase driver, for many this doesn’t mean cutting out specific types of protein. Many consumers seem to take a balanced approach—and some, as we have discovered, are eager to learn more.

Stay tuned to foodinsight.org for the release of our Consumer Attitudes and Perceptions on Healthy and Environmentally Sustainable Diets report later this year.