“CONSUMEHealth”: using consumer science to improve healthy eating habits
by - Giovanni Sogari
Even if in today’s world everyone talks about food and seems expert, many people are wondering who are the most competent sources to listen to? At the same time, in Academia more and more researchers, besides investigating the critical issues surrounding our food system, are also trying to communicate the results to the citizens at large. I thought that, as a young researcher, I should give it a try!
In the last years, healthy, organic, low-fat, free-from, sustainable have become overused terms related to our food, but what do we actually know about them? What do consumers really look at when they make food choices? And what choices are better for their health? It’s difficult to get a singular answer! Food choices are the result of individual psychological and social factors (cultural context, societal values) and the type, framing, and understanding of information (i.e. information environment, sources and formats, etc.). With that said, understanding consumer reactions to messages on food and diet is an essential basis for any policy-making on diet and nutrition.
Although today’s consumers can make informed decisions about which foods, and in what quantities, are best for a healthy lifestyle, in recent years in the European Union (EU) there has been an increase of diet-related health problems caused by unhealthy and over-consumption of food (e.g. overweight, obesity and other chronic diet-related diseases). Unfortunately, attempts to increase public awareness with the increasing availability of health information have not significantly affected food purchase and eating habits. Often, too much information on the label is unread or misunderstood by consumers, especially because many claims use overly scientific or regulatory language.
However, the growing literature in behavioral economics also suggests another way to help consumers and it is based on the fact that food choices are often influenced by subtle and sometimes marketing irrelevant cues rather than main information on the label. Therefore, there is a growing interest in the potential for changing people’s behaviors by altering the ‘choice architecture’ that frames their consumption (size or color of the packaging, names, venues of the consumption, etc). Inspired by the many scientists and experts doing exciting research on this topic all over the world and thanks to my MSc in Food Science and Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics, I decided to study this topic in my new project entitled “CONSUMEHealth. Using consumer science to improve healthy eating habits”. This is an EU project funded by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA), which is part of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research funding scheme.
Me with my students, University of Parma
I have been given the opportunity to be trained by one of the main world-leading experts in the field of behavioral economics, Prof. Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab, Cornell University. I will be a visiting Fellow in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University for the next two years. Cornell University is currently ranked in the world’s top 5 universities for agriculture & forestry and the Food and Brand Lab has a long history in consumer behavior studies. Finally, acquired expertise will be disseminated through publications, seminars and courses during the 12-month mandatory return period at the Department of Food and Drug (under the supervision of Professor Cristina Mora), University of Parma, Italy.
Since my childhood, I have been interested in the area of food, but only through university life I have become more and more involved in the world of food science. As a student, I had the pleasure to study this topic in Sweden (Erasmus at Lund University), in the UK (Newcastle University), in Spain (University of Madrid) and in all these places I found the same common element: the passion of the people working and researching in the food area. Now it is a great honor to be a part of such a multidisciplinary network of food consumer researchers.
What is the most important part of my project so far? That’s just started…so if you enjoyed this story and would like to be the first ones to find out the follow ups, I welcome you to visit my personal blog and subscribe to the newsletter! Welcome on board!