December 18, 2017

Global Food Values: Driving Consumer Behaviors and Food Policy Decisions

The mantra in the food industry has long been that when it comes to consumer decisions about the foods people select for themselves and their families, three primary factors – taste, convenience and price – trump all else. And while these factors will always remain part of the food selection equation, it is becoming more and more apparent that other values are impacting food buying and food policy decisions, and that these values may differ from country-to-country and region-to-region.

FoodMinds has undertaken the development of the Food Values Project™, a program designed to identify the values that most seem to impact food-related selection criteria around the world. And while the project is still a work-in-progress, several interesting phenomena have been uncovered as we’ve queried health and nutrition experts in different countries. Among other things, it is apparent that global food values encompass many interrelated social, political, regulatory, agricultural and technical factors. While science is and will remain a key factor in global food policy development (which ultimately affects consumer buying habits/decisions), emotion is playing a larger role in global food values as well. This manifests itself worldwide in a number of different ways, from the individuals and countries embracing environmental concerns about food production and consumption to animal welfare issues affecting dietary choices. In Brazil, dietary guidelines suggest that people “eat (with) company whenever possible” and that they “eat regular meals, paying attention, and in appropriate environments.”

How might evolving global food values impact food, health and nutrition decisions in the foreseeable future, particularly in more developed countries like the United States? And what might food companies want to consider to be prepared? Burgeoning trends in the science and regulatory arenas certainly point more and more to sustainability becoming a key factor in consumer buying decisions. The health bonafides of a food or nutrient moving forward may not be enough; how the production of that food impacts the environment is a growing issue of concern. Companies that neglect this trend may find their product(s) in the crosshairs at some point. A food or nutrient that lowers cholesterol, but that requires copious amounts of natural resources to produce may not be viewed as the “darling” it may have been in previous years.

On a related note, future food/nutrition research will likely reflect more of a systems approach than in the past. Foods will be viewed in the context of the entire environment in which they are produced, distributed, sold and consumed rather than in the more typical linear cause-and-effect manner in which they were studied in the past. Companies that fund nutrition research should keep this in mind, and consider funding studies that assess foods in the context of an entire diet or lifestyle. Reductionist thinking about the foods we eat is on the outs.

Other health/nutrition issues being driven by burgeoning food values include personalized nutrition, the global obesity crisis and ultra-processed foods, among others.

As food companies seek market access in different regions and continue to develop and market healthy, nutritious foods, a greater knowledge of the values that drive preferences and policies will become more and more important. It behooves companies, or anyone with an interest in the food industry for that matter, to become more aware of the factors that impact food values at the local and global levels.

Mitch Kanter, PhD is a consultant at FoodMinds in Minneapolis.

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