Behavior Change
Affordability, Availability Are Biggest Barriers to Healthy and Sustainable Diets

New global consumer research from EAT and GlobeScan on healthy and sustainable food systems, in conjunction with the UN Food Systems Summit, uncovers barriers to better food habits around the world.

Only half of people worldwide (53 percent) find buying healthy and sustainable food easy, according to a new global consumer research survey conducted by insights and strategy consultancy GlobeScan and EAT — the science-based non-profit for global food system transformation. For those who find it difficult to buy healthy and sustainable food, the biggest obstacles are affordability (48 percent) and availability (36 percent) — with a quarter of people saying that they don’t know what healthy and sustainable food is.

The findings featured in Grains of Truth are based on the opinions of over 30,000 consumers in 31 markets around the world about their definition of good, healthy and sustainable food. The survey also asked people about other issues — including their biggest concerns about food production and the challenges they face purchasing healthy and sustainable food, as well as who can have the biggest positive impact in creating a more healthy and sustainable food system.

The research was carried out as part of the activity around today’s UN Food Systems Summit — where EAT has led Action Track 2, focused on shifting consumption toward sustainable patterns.

The new study mirrors findings from GlobeScan’s 2020 Healthy and Sustainable Living Study, which identified affordability and accessibility as two of seven “unlocks” for helping consumers adopt more sustainable habits and lifestyles.

While many people apparently struggle with understanding what healthy and sustainable food is, there is also an understanding that the two terms have different meanings. The most popular descriptions of healthy food are nutritious (47 percent), organic (47 percent), and unprocessed/whole (44 percent). For sustainable food, the top three descriptions are good for the environment (51 percent), organic (42 percent), and locally grown (34 percent). Another criterion for food sustainability — its carbon footprint or climate-friendliness — is another of growing concern to conscientious eaters, and one that’s becoming more easily identifiable thanks to identifiers such as Just Salad’s carbon-labeled menu items, Chipotle’s Foodprint app; and WRI’s Cool Food Meals certification, which can now be found at Panera and Nestlé foodservice locations nationwide.

Different generations have similar views on sustainable food, but there are differences when it comes to healthy food. Gen Z are most likely to describe healthy food as tasty and nutritious, while Baby Boomers associate it with unprocessed/whole and locally grown food.

When considering some of the issues of the food system, the two biggest concerns are use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers (81 percent) and single-use plastic waste from food packaging (78 percent). These are closely followed by hunger and obesity, with 76 percent of people saying that they are concerned about both issues. These concerns are supported by the fact that one in 11 people are chronically hungry and that a third of the world’s population is overweight. The issue that people are least concerned about is the transportation of food.

Perhaps surprisingly, concern about each of the issues tends to increase with age, with Gen Z on average being the least concerned and Baby Boomers the most concerned. From a regional perspective, consumers in Latin America, Africa and Southern Europe express the strongest concerns about the food system.

Nearly half of consumers (46 percent) believe that the responsibility to make positive change to create a more healthy and sustainable food system lies with national governments. Over a third (37 percent) think food and beverage companies are best placed to achieve this, while 23 percent see people like themselves being able to influence positive change, and one in eight (15 percent) see young people as powerful agents of change.

“There is a lot to be encouraged by in this research — with people around the world understanding the important role they can play in changing food systems through their own consumption patterns,” said EAT founder and Executive Chair Dr. Gunhild Stordalen. “But there are also still huge amounts to be worked on by both governments and food manufacturers — it is these actors that consumers see as holding the power and that consequently they will listen to. And crucially, even though people want to move to more healthy and sustainable eating habits, they currently do not believe they can because in their view, product prices are either too high or difficult to find. This is something policy makers, retailers and manufacturers need to work on and improve, so we can all work together on driving healthier consumption patterns.”

“This timely research provides a roadmap for consumer expectations for a sustainable food system, said GlobeScan CEO Chris Coulter. “Demonstrating environmental integrity is a definer of sustainable food for people around the world; and there are very high levels of concern for a range of issues affecting the food system — from pesticide use to plastics, to obesity, to impacts on nature. In addition, consumers hold government and business especially responsible for delivering a sustainable food system, making the UN Food Systems Summit a critical opportunity to demonstrate progress to people across the world.”

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