Consumer Attitudes and Behaviors About Healthy and Sustainable Food

Sat, September 02, 2017

Improving the diet of Americans depends in large part on the choices consumers make for themselves and their families. Last year, we saw that even consumers motivated to make healthier food choices can’t help but be confused given the steady barrage of inconsistent advice about what is healthy. This year, we focus specifically on progress in consumer attitudes and behaviors about three critical categories of healthy and sustainable foods: red meat, foods labeled as healthy or low calorie, and organic foods.

Red Meat

Concerns about sustainability, environmental impact, humane treatment of animals, and personal health could each motivate consumers to reduce their consumption of red meat. While red meat consumption had dropped substantially since the 1980s and continues to drop modestly, many diners are still unwilling to change their diets. Recently researchers designed a “meat attachment” scale that ranges from very low (e.g., revolted by the idea of eating meat) to very high (e.g., feeling that eating meat is one of the great pleasures in life). As expected, people’s attachment to meat predicted how much they could be convinced to reduce their meat consumption. The authors concluded that using a one-size-fits-all strategy is mistaken when encouraging consumers to cut back on meat. Instead, they suggested, interventions should be tailored to people’s beliefs, attitudes, and cultures. While some diners are motivated by concerns for their own health, others find animal welfare and environmental concerns more compelling. The authors further warn that some arguments about the benefits of reducing meat consumption could backfire among those who are strongly attached to meat, causing them to become defensive and strengthen their justifications for eating meat.

One new strategy for motivating consumers to reduce their meat consumption capitalized on people’s well-known tendency to conform to normative behavior. The challenge here is that eating meat is normative, so emphasizing how many people eat meat would simply reinforce the idea of eating meat. But the researchers argued that people might also conform to dynamic, changing norms, so emphasizing how many people are trying to reduce their meat consumption might motivate someone to consider cutting back. To test this idea, the researchers presented study participants with one of two brief statements. One was a static norm, representing the current situation: “Recent research has shown that 30 percent of Americans make an effort to limit their meat consumption...” The other statement expressed a dynamic norm, representing an evolving situation: “Recent research has shown that…30 percent of Americans have now started to make an effort to limit their meat consumption...” Those who heard the dynamic norm reported being more interested in reducing their meat consumption. In a follow-up study, people in line to buy lunch at a university café were given one of the two statements as part of a survey they were asked to fill out. They were then given gift cards at the café for participating in the survey, and the cards enabled the researchers to track what each person ordered for lunch. People who learned that others were beginning to cut back on eating meat were more likely to themselves order a meatless lunch.

Foods Labeled as Healthy or Low Calorie

A number of initiatives have been undertaken to provide more information to consumers to help them make healthier food choices. New menu labeling requirements have come full force in recent months, and last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) redesigned the format for presenting nutrition information on packaged foods. The key changes include: larger font and bold lettering for number of calories per serving and recalibrated serving size to reflect what people actually eat. Making calories so salient aims to help people make wiser food choices, under the assumption that calories are the most important thing to monitor in an overweight nation. A related initiative, providing calorie counts for dishes ordered at restaurants, has been in place long enough to begin to assess its effect. So far, the results are not very encouraging. In a review of ten randomly controlled trials, the findings were mixed—some found benefits for women but not men; some found lower calorie options selected for side dishes but total calories were not reduced; some found lower calorie options selected for children but not parents; and fully half of the studies showed no benefit at all. The authors of the technical report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee suspect that, “the impact of menu labeling on calorie consumption is likely to be low.” Follow-up studies will be essential for determining the impact of the FDA’s calorie labeling efforts.

Beyond the potentially neutral effect of showing calorie information, there is reason to believe that labeling food as “low calorie” or “healthy” can even backfire. It is well established that many contextual cues affect the extent to which people find identical foods delicious or satisfying: Adults rate foods as more delicious if they are served at an elegant restaurant rather than a diner, for instance. Children rate carrots that they believe came from McDonald’s as better tasting than ordinary carrots. Children rate the taste of “healthy” smoothies as worse than identical regular smoothies. Moreover, when people eat what they believe to be a low-calorie meal, they can feel less satisfied, become hungrier, and eat more at the next meal. Health psychologists have even documented that simply believing one has consumed a low-calorie milkshake instead of an “indulgent” milkshake heightened the secretion of the hormone ghrelin, which increases hunger.

Organic Foods

One example of clear progress in the move towards more sustainable choices among consumers is the increased consumption of organic foods. Not only is the increase substantial, but there is some evidence that interest in organic foods has begun to spread beyond the niche, upscale market. Detailed evidence about consumers’ motivations to buy organic produce is lacking, but avoiding pesticides, antibiotics, and other synthetic chemicals along with perceived health benefits are certainly important factors. The biggest obstacles to buying organic foods are expense and convenience, not consumer attitudes. Progress on those fronts could have a huge impact.

On the other hand, exaggerating the benefits of organic over conventional foods has its pitfalls. Some consumers forego eating fruits or vegetables when organic is not available. But it is far healthier to consume a variety of fresh or frozen conventional fruits and vegetables than it is to restrict consumption. Consumers can also be misled into believing because a food is organic it is healthy. But cookies or refined white bread, for example, are not healthy even when organic. Another concern is that in some cases conventional fertilizers can be safer than organic. When manure is used in organic farming, it can harbor E. coli, so if contaminated fresh vegetables are eaten raw, they can pose a health hazard.


Over the past year, there was mixed news about consumers’ attitudes towards healthier and more sustainable food choices. Red meat consumption has shown modest declines, but only among some consumers. Providing calorie counts in restaurants shows mixed results as well. A bright spot, though, is the substantial and widening consumer interest in organic foods.


  1. Chefs and foodservice professionals can play an enormous role in helping to overcome resistance to foods characterized as “low calorie” or “healthy.” Emphasizing and demonstrating how delicious more plant-based, healthy foods can be is one of the most effective ways of shifting consumers’ perceptions.
  2. People are increasingly open to choosing more organic foods, so policies that can make these foods more affordable and accessible could be tremendously beneficial. Using messages about organic and sustainable production can help some diners make healthier choices.
  3. Evidence-based evaluations of how consumers react to labeling and new information are also essential. Some messages about food that seem benign can instead backfire, such as labeling healthy choices; we need evidence about how to avoid these unintended negative consequences.


  • For the most part, there has been only modest progress in consumers choosing healthy and sustainable foods, including a slight decline in red meat consumption and a mixed response to calorie counts in restaurants.Consumer interest in organic foods, however, has increased substantially.
  • New and existing research from psychology and related fields offers conceptual insights and empirical evidence in the ways that seemingly straightforward messages about food can be ineffective or even backfire. Characterizing foods as “low calorie” or “healthy” can lead people to believe it is less delicious and less satisfying, and cause them to increase the amount they eat at subsequent meals. It is important to scientifically validate the effectiveness of health messages.
  • Chefs and foodservice providers can help dispel negative attitudes towards “healthy” and “low calorie” foods by making healthy food options delicious. Clearly, flavor is a powerful lever in shifting a wide range of consumer attitudes and behaviors. These culinary strategies would be all the more beneficial if paired with policies that make organic options more affordable and widely available.