Perception of sustainability and food health are closely linked

Gudrun Sproesser
Gudrun Sproesser
Many people want to eat healthily, but also value the sustainability of their food.

Intuitively, healthy is often equated with sustainable. A study by scientists from the Johannes Kepler University Linz, the University of Constance and the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences has investigated whether this perception corresponds to reality.

A new international research study shows that consumers predominantly make a clear connection between the perceived sustainability and healthiness of food and meals. "We investigated whether this widespread perception that healthy meals are also sustainable varies greatly. And whether this perception changes depending on the actual correspondence between health and sustainability of meals. We also investigated whether the type of meal, e.g. vegan food, influences this presumed connection," explains Dr. Gudrun Sproesser, head of the JKU Department of Health Psychology.

In the study, a total of 5,021 customers of a public canteen assessed the sustainability and healthiness of 29 different meal options. In addition, precise values for environmental sustainability and health were determined by analyzing the exact recipes of the meals using a special algorithm. The results clearly showed that the participants made a significant connection between sustainability and health, meaning that they automatically considered healthy food to be sustainable. "Interestingly, however, there was no correlation between this perception and the actual correspondence between the environmental sustainability and health values of the meals," Sproesser points out. This is because vitamin-rich food can also be produced using methods that are harmful to the environment and, conversely, sustainable food can be unhealthy.

The researchers also found that the perception of "healthy = sustainable" was not influenced by other characteristics of the meals (e.g. vegan content) or individual characteristics (e.g. gender of consumers, eating style). However, the correlation between perceived sustainability and health was higher among older participants than among younger participants, who made this connection somewhat less clearly.

"The result clearly shows that we need to educate consumers about both the sustainability and healthiness of food," the JKU psychologist demands. Sustainability labels for food, for example, would make sense. This would allow consumers to make informed decisions about their diet in the future and contribute to environmental protection at the same time.

About the paper: The "healthy = sustainable" heuristic: Do meal or individual characteristics affect the association between perceived sustainability and healthiness of meals?