Environmental sustainability and food waste are top of mind for many consumers, but there are sharp differences of beliefs and behaviors between different groups, according to a new pair of surveys by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, Washington, D.C.

“Technology, an increasing focus on health and wellness and consumers’ desires to empower and inform their food decisions are transforming food production and our diets,” says Joseph Clayton, chief executive officer. “The Future of Food Summit explores how we can address these changes and channel our knowledge in order to improve the food system and food choices. The IFIC Foundation’s new research is meant to supplement those goals and add to our understanding of consumer attitudes and behaviors.”

Environmentally sustainable diets

The IFIC Foundation’s 2019 Food and Health Survey found that 54% of consumers say it’s at least somewhat important that the products they buy be produced in an environmentally sustainable way. The foundation conducted this follow-up survey to drill down on attitudes and behaviors.

When asked which aspects of an environmentally sustainable diet are important to consumers, “what I eat is healthy for the planet” was the top response, followed by “what I eat is nutritious.” Other factors—such as ingredients people know and recognize, foods that are produced using fewer natural resources and foods with recyclable packaging—lagged behind.

Among those for whom “healthy for the planet” was a top answer, men outnumbered women (15% vs. 8%) and college graduates outnumbered non-college graduates (17% vs. 8%), while, conversely, people from the Midwest were far less likely to choose that response (just 5%) than other regions (9% in the South, 15% in the Northeast and 17% in the West).

Two-thirds (66%) of consumers think an environmentally sustainable diet can include protein from both animal sources and plant-based sources, while only 10% disagreed. But, there was an education gap in the responses, with 73% of college graduates agreeing vs. 62% of non-graduates.

Nonetheless, animal-based proteins dominate diets, with 92% of respondents reporting consuming protein from animal sources like meat, dairy, eggs and seafood. Age influences protein consumption, as consumers under 45 years are less likely to consume animal proteins (88%), while those 65 and older are more likely to do so (98%).

On the other hand, nearly three-quarters (72%) of respondents report consuming protein from plant sources. But, 80% of college graduates say they consume plant-based proteins vs. 66% of non-college graduates. Taste was the most important factor behind those dietary choices, cited as the top reason of 81% of those who consume animal proteins and by 73% of those who eat plant-based proteins.
When people were asked how much of each source of protein they would need to consume to eat an environmentally sustainable diet, the responses varied. Only one-quarter (27%) said they would need to consume more plant-based protein, while 38% said such a diet would require the same amount of plant protein and 11% said it would require less.

When it comes to animal protein, one-quarter (26%) said they would need to consume less to attain an environmentally sustainable and healthy diet, while half (53%) said it would require the same amount or more protein from animal sources.

Consumers were also asked what comes to mind when they think of environmentally sustainable animal protein. “No added hormones” topped the list at 50%, followed by “grass-fed animals” (40%) and “locally raised” (32%). Just 21% of respondents associated animals that were fed an organic diet with environmentally sustainable animal protein.

“Environmental sustainability is clearly on the mind of many consumers, but sometimes in ways we might not expect,” Clayton says. “For instance, some consider nutritious food or recognizable ingredients as part of an environmentally sustainable diet. The findings also suggest that consumers believe that animal- and plant-based diets can co-exist as sustainable options—particularly in the United States.”

Food waste

When asked to choose the Top 3 types of food that most often end up in the garbage, 74% of consumers discarded leftovers of foods prepared at home, 67% threw out fresh produce and 50% tossed leftovers from restaurants. No other foods—including meats, eggs or dairy products, or shelf-stable items—were reported to be wasted by more than 27%. Women were far more likely than men to throw out leftovers from home (78% vs. 68%).

When asked choose their Top 2 reasons why food gets wasted, 83% of consumers reported spoiled or stale food as the most common reason foods ended up in the trash, followed by cleaning out the pantry (49%) and others in the household who simply didn’t want to eat the foods (28%). In terms of where food choices are made, food waste is always on the mind of 34% of consumers while grocery shopping, 28% while eating at home and 19% while eating out.

Hispanic/Latino consumers (47%), those under 45 years old (45%) and people in the Northeast (44%) were more likely than other groups to always think about food waste while grocery shopping, with similar demographic results when eating at home or eating out.

Financial considerations are the main reason people think about food waste, no matter the location, with “reducing the amount of money spent” cited by 42% while grocery shopping, 35% when eating out and 32% when eating at home. Age correlates with these responses while grocery shopping, with 45% of those under 45 years old citing the money they spend as their top food waste consideration, but only 32% of those 65 and older offered the same response. Similar splits exist for those eating at home or eating out.

Many consumers report ways they try to reduce food waste. For example, 60% store their foods to maximize shelf life, 54% keep their pantries organized, 51% make grocery lists and 48% make meal plans. Among those who eat out, 62% take leftovers home, 47% order small meals and 33% share their meals. Women are far more likely than men to make a grocery list (58% vs. 43%).

“Food waste isn’t just an environmental or health issue; it’s a moral imperative,” Clayton says. “About 800 million people around the world still go hungry every night, with many more who are undernourished. The more we can understand about attitudes and behaviors around food waste, the more progress we can make toward solving this arduous problem.”

The “A Survey of Consumers’ Attitudes and Perceptions of Environmentally Sustainable and Healthy Diets” interviewed 1,000 adults 18 years and older from June 11-12, and had a margin of error of 3.1% at a 95% confidence level.

“A Survey of Consumer Behaviors & Perceptions of Food Waste” employed the same methodology and was conducted Aug. 13-14.