Uncovering how we choose our food

shopping concept, man reading label on the jar

With countless factors – including many ethical – influencing modern-day Australians’ food choices, ongoing research into how and why we reach our decisions is providing invaluable intelligence for local food producers and policymakers.

If you think judging a book by its cover is tricky, try interpreting a contemporary Australian’s values based on what they eat. Choosing food has become an extremely complex process, with myriad contributing factors. In addition to long-established considerations such as taste, health benefit, affordability, convenience and religious beliefs, today’s consumers are also expected to weigh up the ethical impact of their choices, including on the environment, animal welfare and community livelihoods.

Consequently, the concept of “good food” is increasingly ambiguous, with widely varying interpretations from one individual to another; and this has significant consequences for food producers, marketers and policymakers seeking to understand and meet consumer expectations.

The University of Adelaide’s Food Values Research Group, however, is casting valuable light on the issue. Part of the University’s School of Humanities, the group has for several years been 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.

“Our 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 has 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.

“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.”

Related links:
Professor Rachel Ankeny – researcher profile
Food Values Research Group
School of Humanities
Food Innovation