It is only when we understand the richness and complexity of our relationship with food that we can change food behaviours for the better together, says Annet Hoek.
Changing consumer food choices and consumption seems to be a more challenging endeavour compared to other consumer product choices, such as clothing or home appliances. That’s because food holds a special place in our lives, shaped by a unique combination of factors that make it harder to alter our behaviours. There is truly no other product category where all of these factors come together in such a way.
Indeed, food is one of the most basic and essential needs for good health and wellbeing. At birth, we have certain innate taste preferences, such as a liking for sweet. This encourages infants to seek out breastmilk and other nutrient-dense foods, which are essential for their growth and development.
Eating and drinking remains an intimate and personal experience, even as adults. It involves all our senses – tasting, smelling, touching, hearing, and seeing. Food and drinks are fully ingested into our bodies, causing a cascade of physical and psychological processes.
This intimate relationship with food is a lifelong one – we eat and drink our entire lives, from the moment we are born until the moment we die. Furthermore, in normal healthy circumstances our interaction with various foods and drinks is extremely frequent: we choose, prepare, eat, drink and/or dispose of foods numerous times a day.
Food has meaning. It is an expression of culture with specific customs for countries, tribes, and families. Food can also be a ritual or expression of one’s identity, beliefs, religion, status, and values. It contributes to meaningful lifestyles and can be a deliberate part of activities such as growing, making, and sharing foods, from regular weekly family meals to special occasions.
However, many food behaviours are also automatic and habitual, such as preparing coffee and breakfast in the morning on a workday. This can be dangerous when, in combination with food environments that are replete with unhealthy food cues and advertisements, we are unconsciously influenced to eat more of the less healthy options.
As unique as our food behaviours are, so is the urgent need to change the way we produce and consume food. The world currently faces simultaneous global challenges of overnutrition and undernutrition (due to nutrition inequity). Our food choices and behaviours also have a huge impact on the health of our planet. In fact, a change in how we deal with food, as, producers, suppliers, sellers, policymakers and consumers, will make a difference to all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
It is evident that changes in food-related behaviours, driven and supported by changes in the food system, require special attention and expertise. This begins with a thorough understanding of the diverse range of factors involved and requires closer collaboration across multiple disciplines, including food and nutrition, psychology, marketing, communication, technology, and design.
Let's take action by working together to change our food ways.
Annet Hoek is a research manager and consultant, specialising in behaviour science, food, nutrition and health.