What Makes U.S. Consumers Buy Certain Foods?
Consumption of red meat in the U.S. has declined over the past 10 years, but the typical diet remains high in red and processed meat products. Shifting toward plant-based proteins is necessary to promote health, animal welfare, and environmental protection, but diet change campaigns are proving to be a challenge.
To change eating habits, we need to know what consumers value in their food choices. Research has shown that price, quality, taste, and health are important factors, but there are also shared or social elements at play — for example, people may choose foods based on their social identity, habits, and social norms.
Making things even more complicated, asking people to describe what matters to them when purchasing food doesn’t always reveal the most helpful information. Consumers often make unconscious choices, and therefore observational studies can be used to identify the underlying beliefs and subtle reasons for choosing one food over another.
This research explores personal decision-making around food purchases, with an emphasis on health and environmental impact. The authors conducted the study in two parts: First, they interviewed 27 participants in California and Nebraska about their eating patterns, factors they consider when buying food, and their attitudes toward animal vs. plant-based proteins. Later, they asked 20 of the participants to sort 42 different food items mentioned during the interviews (e.g., yogurt, veggie burgers, steak) into groups based on similarity, and then rate them for price, taste, health, convenience, familiarity, and environmental impact. In this way, the researchers applied both interview and observational methods.
In total, the participants listed 21 key considerations when purchasing food items. These items did not differ by demographic or region. The most commonly-cited considerations were:
- Price (e.g., affordability and budgeting)
- Health (e.g., calories, special diet needs)
- Taste/Preferences (e.g., flavor, texture)
- Time (e.g., time to prepare, convenience)
- Quality (e.g., perceived freshness or nutritional value)
Notably, even though health factors were considered important, many participants talked about avoiding healthy foods if they were unaffordable or were perceived as untasty. Furthermore, only 6% of participants mentioned ethical considerations such as animal welfare, the environment, and religion without being prompted, suggesting that these factors were not at the forefront of their minds. Even for participants who cared about things like animal welfare and the environment, price often outweighed ethical considerations when a tradeoff existed.
Regarding the food sorting task, participants categorized the 42 items into an average of 5.7 groups. The most common group labels were:
- “Meat and Fish” (e.g., chicken sandwich, beef hamburger)
- “Eggs” (e.g., scrambled egg, hard-boiled egg)
- “Dairy” (e.g., cheese, cow’s milk)
- “Grains” (e.g., bread, spaghetti)
- “Plant Proteins” (e.g., black beans, veggie burger)
- “Other Vegetables” (e.g., portobello mushroom, green salad)
When it came to plant-based milk, Impossible burgers, and in-vitro meat, participants didn’t come to a general consensus as to how they should be sorted. This may reflect the overall uncertainty and skepticism surrounding these products, as many consumers shared that processed meat alternatives didn’t appeal to them. Indeed, when grouped into their own category, some consumers labeled the group as “weird,” “waste of time,” or “won’t eat.” Similarly, while there was a strong consensus for what constitutes food price, taste, convenience, and familiarity, most participants didn’t agree on what makes a food healthy or environmentally sustainable.
For animal advocates focused on dietary change, there are a few important takeaways from this study. First, when asking people to shift what they eat, it’s important to focus on what consumers value most (especially price and health) over other factors like environmental impact. Second, even people deeply concerned about health and the environment talked about the affordability of ethical food products. As such, advocates must play a role in pushing for policies to reduce U.S. food inequities. Finally, most consumers remain confused about novel meat alternatives like cell-based and Impossible meat. As U.S. dietary guidelines change, advocates must work to raise awareness of these products in sensitive, salient ways.