Consumer behaviours and attitudes to food

Woman shopping for organic produce in delicatessen, photo by Monkey Business Images/Adobe Stock

Adobe Stock

The way people buy food is changing, and the sales of ethical and sustainable produce have increased. Eating food from outside the home is increasingly common, and what people consume still falls short of dietary guidelines. The reasons vary, and several policy levers may exist to influence people's food choices.

What is the issue?

What we eat has big implications for our health, our society and the environment. Therefore, it is crucial that we understand what people eat, the reasons why people eat the way they do, and how we can best change food consumer practices through interventions.

How did we help?

Researchers examined the evidence around food consumer attitudes and practices in the UK, identifying gaps in the research. The review focused on the main trends; what influences consumption; the interventions that can influence food consumption practices; and how different people make decisions about food.

The analysis suggests priority areas for action and further research, and will be used by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to support its work on food production and consumption.

What did we learn?

  • What people consume still falls short of dietary guidelines. People in the UK continue to eat too much saturated fat and not enough fruit, vegetables and fibre.
  • The way people buy food is changing. People are increasingly shopping for food online and using food delivery services such as vegetable boxes and meal kits.
  • Eating food from outside the home is increasingly common. This has been helped by digital technology and the expansion of online takeaway platforms. This trend has negative implications as food outside the home tends to be less healthy.
  • There has been an increase in the sales of ethical and sustainable produce, such as Fairtrade and RSPCA-Assured. However, total sales are low, representing only 11 per cent of all household food purchases.

The drivers or influencers of consumption

  • Cost and perceived value-for-money. People are less likely to pay for healthy, ethically produced or sustainable types of food if the price is perceived to be too high.
  • Availability and convenience. Individuals are more likely to be healthy in different environments (e.g. at work, school, or the supermarket) if healthy options are made available.
  • Marketing can increase the consumption of unhealthy food, especially in children and young people. Social media also has an increasing influence here.
  • Food environments. Evidence is mixed but environments such as home, school and university are thought to be associated with healthier food choices. Food placement in supermarkets also likely influences consumer choice.
  • Food system actors, such as food manufacturers and retailers, national and local government, the media, family, friends and schools, can all influence the food environment and consumption practices but there is no evidence on their relative importance.
  • Sociodemographic differences are an important predictor of consumption. Low socioeconomic status – in terms of education level, work status and income – is the single most consistent risk factor for not consuming a healthy diet.

Interventions – how policymakers can influence people’s food choices

  • Knowledge and information. Overall, interventions or programmes that affect knowledge and information, such as advertising or food package labelling, can help to raise awareness about healthy diets but they do not necessarily translate into behaviour change.
  • Food environment. Increasing evidence suggests that people’s choices are limited by the availability of certain food types in their environments, and there have been some attempts to tackle ‘food deserts’ or a lack of healthy food outlets in certain areas.
  • Cost and content of food. Changing the cost and content of food through taxes, subsidies and altering ingredients are effective at changing consumption. However, the change in price needs to be significant to have an effect, and currently there is limited understanding of possible substitution effects.

What could be done?

Based on key evidence gaps, there are several priority areas that policymakers could consider.

  • A ‘whole systems’ approach. Coordinating complementary approaches across the policy spectrum – from ‘soft’ measures like knowledge and information provision that promote individual-level change to ‘hard’ measures that encourage collective change, like changes to the cost and content of food - is likely to be most effective at changing consumer diets, to ensure they are sustainable, affordable and healthy.
  • Invest in evaluations to help understand the effectiveness of interventions that target the wider (and changing) food environment and address the availability of unhealthy food.
  • Gather ‘real world’ evidence around changes to the cost and content of foods, to improve understanding of the overall effectiveness of prices, subsidies and reformulation of foods.
  • Collect evidence on longer term outcomes and more longitudinal data, to better understand what factors can result in changes in consumption practices.