Uncovering how we choose our food
With countless factors influencing modern-day Australians’ food choices, ongoing research into how and why we reach our decisions provides valuable intelligence for local food producers and policymakers.
Choosing food has become an extremely complex process, with a myriad of contributing factors. In addition to long-established considerations such as taste, nutritional information, affordability, convenience and religious beliefs, today consumers are also weighing up the ethical impact of their choices, including environment, animal welfare and community livelihoods.
Consequently, the concept of “good food” is increasingly ambiguous, with widely varying interpretations from one individual to another. This has significant consequences for food producers, marketers and policymakers seeking to understand and meet consumer expectations.
The University of Adelaide has been casting valuable light on the issue by investigating exactly what Australian consumers consider to be ethical food, and what motivates them to purchase foods that claim to be more ethical than others.
“There are many examples of food choices that include an ethical dimension,” says lead researcher Professor Rachel Ankeny.
“Some of the most common include choices surrounding food produced using genetic modification technology, organic farming methods, humane animal treatment, or locally sourced ingredients.
“But our research, although ongoing, has shown that what consumers consider ‘ethical’—and how they decide which foods are ‘best’—depends on a complex interplay of values and weighting of evidence. What we might assume to be the driving factor is not always the case.”
According to Professor Ankeny, buying choices in relation to free-range, or cage-free eggs provide a perfect example.
“In one study, we asked 75 people in focus groups and shopping mall interviews what they look for in terms of products that promote animal welfare. The most common answers involved free-range or cage-free eggs, and showed that what appears to be an ethical choice to reduce animal suffering is often much more complicated.
Participants also strongly linked good animal welfare with superior sensory characteristics in the eggs—such as taste, texture, nutrition and appearance—as well as a reduction in perceived health risks.
Yet even when consumers reach a decision about what factors they place greatest importance on, this still may not be reflected in their buying decision.
“Our research also found consumers are often unable to source or afford those foods that align with their values,” adds Professor Ankeny. “Or they may not actually be able to identify them because of issues to do with labelling.”
The latter challenge is one the group hopes its research will play an important part in encouraging policymakers and producers to address.
“We’ve found most Australians would like a more transparent process when it comes to food labelling. This includes showing how food is produced, and the distance it’s travelled from paddock to plate. However labelling is only one part of a bigger picture. What is critical is that food policy encourage the development of food production systems that can deliver safe, enjoyable, affordable, and nutritious food in sustainable ways that also align with community food values.”
“Hopefully this becomes part of food policy, and ultimately encourages the development of food production systems that can deliver safe, tasty, affordable, nutritious food in a sustainable way that also aligns with community food values.”
Professor Rachel Ankeny
School of Humanities
Faculty of Arts