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Research Questions

  1. What are the trends related to consumer food practices and attitudes, and to the changing food environment, in the UK?
  2. What are the drivers of food consumption?
  3. Which interventions can influence food consumption practices?
  4. What are the differences between groups, or 'food publics', across the trends, drivers and interventions?

What we eat has big implications for our health, our society and the environment. Unhealthy and nutritionally poor diets lead to ill health. The current food system and people's food practices have negative impacts on the environment, leading to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and biodiversity loss. Addressing these complex challenges requires changing how food is produced to ensure it is more sustainable, and, importantly, changing consumption to ensure it is healthier and more sustainable. Therefore, understanding food consumption trends, what drives them and how we can change consumption practices through interventions is crucial to inform policy.

The aim of this study commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was to provide an overview of the existing evidence in four main areas: (1) the trends related to consumer food practices and attitudes, and to the changing food environment (e.g. out-of-home sector, online retail models) in the UK; (2) the drivers of consumption (e.g. the role of information or food system actors); (3) interventions that can influence food consumption practices; and (3) the differences between groups, or 'food publics', across the trends, drivers and interventions (i.e. segmentation). Researchers conducted a rapid evidence assessment, with a focus on identification of existing evidence and evidence gaps within high-quality, primarily academic literature from the last ten years. This report provides evidence around these questions and identifies areas of uncertainty where more evidence is required and, based on this, suggests a number of priority areas for further research and action by policymakers.

Key Findings

  • A minority of consumers increasingly care but most diets still fall short of nutritional guidelines and many consumers do not always act in line with their beliefs.
  • There are predictable socio-economic differences across broad consumption trends but the impact of wider socio-demographic factors is less clear.
  • The food environment is changing but the full impact of this on consumption is unclear .
  • The food environment, which is likely shaped by powerful food system actors, is a significant driver of consumption.
  • Food decisions are not always consciously deliberated and are determined by culture, social environment and sense of identity, and what we eat is often a matter of habit and convenience.

Recommendations

  • A 'whole systems' approach is needed to change food consumption.
  • Invest in evaluations of the effectiveness of interventions that target the wider (and changing) food environment.
  • Gather real-world evidence around subsidies, taxes and reformulation programmes to better understand the potential substitution effects.
  • Collect evidence on longer-term outcomes and more longitudinal data.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Why food consumption matters

  • Chapter Two

    Consumption trends – what foods are people consuming, where and how?

  • Chapter Three

    Drivers of consumption – what influences food consumption practices?

  • Chapter Four

    Individual and social differences – how do different people make decisions about food?

  • Chapter Five

    Interventions – how can policymakers influence food consumption decisions?

  • Chapter Six

    Reflections – what does the evidence say about food consumption in the UK, and what should policymakers do next?

  • Annex A

    Approach and methodology

Research conducted by

This research was commissioned by the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) and conducted by RAND Europe.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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