Nutrition, environmental health, and food safety are issues that are becoming closely tied, according to speakers at the 2009 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting and Food Expo®. Sustainability is becoming more important to the consumer when it comes to food, with factors such as production ethics and global warming being foremost.
Even though the public does not fully understand the word “sustainable,” the food industry uses it extensively in marketing. According to Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis, many of the terms associated with sustainability are misunderstood and misused in the public discussion. And terms may be influenced as much by illusion as by science, she said.
“It might be wishful thinking that locally grown is energy efficient,” Bruhn said by way of example since UC Davis economics information indicates that transporting a pickup load of local vegetables costs much more in energy per unit than transporting them from other areas by train or ship.
Released during the session, a survey reported that 74 percent of the public agree that eating green or sustainable foods will be good for their bodies, and 55 percent are likely to purchase more local or sustainably produced food products.
In the same session, Lynn Dornblaser of Mintel International Group in Chicago, IL, said that terms such as “organic,” “natural,” “local,” “fair trade,” and “carbon footprint” are evolving in consumer consciousness. The number of people classifying themselves as green consumers has risen, and that will continue.
“About 40 percent more say they are more concerned about the environment than they were just a year ago,” Dornblaser said. “Who would have thought we would be talking about carbon footprint?”
Dornblaser said that new product introductions are making more and more ethical and environmental claims. The fair trade issue with products such as tea, coffee, and chocolate illustrate the trend. But fair trade ingredients now appear in beer, snacks, and facial tissue. Also of growing concern is ethical energy consumption. For example, Dornblaser noted that Fat Tire beer advertises that its product is being brewed based on wind power.
What drives consumer behavior in this era? Sylvia B Rowe, president of SR Strategy LLC in Washington, DC, noted that the public’s idea of food now entails ethics and medicinal value. There is conflict whether commodities are being used as food or as a source of fuel.
“We almost look at food now as a political button. It’s almost a statement,” Rowe said. Terms such as “locally grown” and “sustainable” are important in the public eye, with topics such as animal welfare and carbon footprint in the forefront.