Are all healthy foods automatically sustainable?

Friday, 01 December, 2023

Are all healthy foods automatically sustainable?

Often, “healthy” is intuitively equated with being “sustainable” as people move towards making healthy and sustainable food choices. Researchers at the University of Konstanz, the Johannes Kepler University Linz and the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences are focusing on whether or not this perception corresponds to reality.

The study has been published in PLOS Sustainability and Transformation.

The researchers found that many consumers clearly correlate their perception of sustainability with how healthy their food choices and meals are.

“We examined just how widespread the perception is that healthy meals are also sustainable. We were especially interested in whether perceptions change based on the actual overlap between meal health and sustainability. We also explored whether the type of meal, such as a vegan meal, influences this presumed correlation,” said Professor Gudrun Sproesser, head of the Department of Health Psychology at Johannes Kepler University.

In the study, over 5000 customers were asked to rate 29 different meal options at the University of Konstanz’s public canteen as to what they believed to be a healthy and sustainable choice. A special algorithm to analyse precise meal recipes was also applied to determine the exact values relating to environmental sustainability and healthy eating. The findings showed that many participants automatically believed that healthy food was also sustainable.

According to Sproesser, however, there was no association between the participants’ perception and the actual overlap between sustainability and health. This is because healthy foods can be produced using less sustainable methods and sustainable foods can be less healthy.

“The findings clearly indicate that we consumers need better and more readily accessible information about the sustainability and healthiness of foods,” said Britta Renner, who leads the research team Psychological Assessment and Health Psychology at the University of Konstanz.

One approach is to use climate or sustainability labels on food, as suggested by the Scientific Advisory Board on Agricultural Policy, Food and Consumer Health Protection (WBAE) of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. These labels would enable consumers to make more informed decisions about what they eat while doing their part to protect the environment.

Image credit: Rachbauer

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