10.2 What are the influences on our food choices?

  • People’s consumption patterns are shaped by multiple influences - biological, psychological, societal , technological, regulatory and economic. A number of conceptual models have been drawn to try and illustrate the role of these influences.
  • To shift consumption patterns we need to have a sense of why people do what they do and therefore what interventions would change those practices.
  • Theories of change are based variously on assumptions that our choices can be influenced by rational, contextual, structural and identity-oriented factors.


10.2.1 Conceptual models of influences on people’s food consumption.

The influences on consumption are multiple

Finch, J. and Garnett, T. (2016) unpublished


The health impacts of consumption patterns are influenced by many factors, not just food security. These include: levels of economic development, agricultural policy, pricing strategies, changes in how food is produced and distributed, marketing and media, values and aspirations, nutritional knowledge and access to information, and traditional attitudes to food and health. The role of policy is crucial – it shapes the overarching social, infrastructural and economic influences on consumption and the extent to which health consequences are addressed.

Nutrition-related health outcomes are therefore impacted by factors other than just food security, being multi-level, multi-sectoral, and multi-cultural. Some of these factors, relating to socioeconomic status and lifestyles are discussed later in this chapter.

Another way of looking at the influences on consumption

Source: Garnett T (unpublished)

Our food consumption patterns are influenced by many factors. Key factors include price, availability, knowledge, social norms, industry marketing and regulation. Garnett T (2014). Changing consumption: How can we change the way we eat? A discussion paper. Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford

Thus our choices are influenced by affordability, availability, social norms, marketing and other information sources.

Other influences on our eating patterns include the habitual and ritual nature of many consumption practices, religious beliefs and taboos, the pleasure we gain from food or particular types of food, or settings in which they are consumed, and many other factors.

As an overarching point, we live in a highly consumerist society – food is just one part of this.. Approaches to understanding and shaping our eating patterns need to take account of these wider societal influences, structures and norms. For example, rebound effects could occur when, for example, someone makes a sustainable food choice but feels they have “done their bit” and subsequently acts in an unsustainable way in other aspects of their life.

Leakages can occur whereby, for example, reduced consumption of meat within a country leads to increase exports of meat – in other words, consumption goes down, but production stays the same. The production-consumption relationship is complex and a full understanding of how they impact each other, beyond simple supply and demand, and across different consumption-production categories (food and non food) is lacking.

And another one showing the individual, societal and material (ISM) influences on consumption practice

Darnton, A. & Evans, D. (2013) Influencing behaviours: A technical guide to the ISM tool, The Scottish Government.

People’s consumption practices are influenced by individual factors (such as individual values, skills, costs), by social factors (e.g. social norms) and by material factors (such as regulations, technologies).

This tool maps the individual (I) influences on consumption (e.g. values, skills, emotions), the societal (S) influences (e.g. institutions, norms, networks), and the material (M) influences such as rules and regulations, physical infrastructure, technologies and the timings and schedules that shape the day.

10.2.2 Different drivers of behaviour inform four theories of how food choices may be changed.

Theories of change emphasise different drivers

Broadly speaking four theories of change could be applied: (separately or in combination)

1. People behave rationally

  • Factors such as price mechanisms and wellbeing govern choices
  • Potential interventions: fiscal and awareness campaigns

2. People are context- & biologically driven & impulsive

  • Choices are driven more by impulse than rational decisions
  • Potential interventions: choice architecture, advertising, target interventions aimed at changing or reinforcing default behaviour

3. Societal structures drive our actions

  • Influences include availability and price of certain foods, societal structures around time use, technologies & institutions
  • Potential interventions: regulatory and system change
  • 4. People want identity
  • What we eat expression of identity & values
  • Potential interventions: realigning values and social norms

None of them alone is ‘correct’ – composite perspectives needed

Overlap exists between these theories, and change could best be achieved by doing all of them.

Theories of change could be categorised into four broad categories, focusing on individual actions (as either 1. rational or 2. context-driven / impulsive) and societal influences (3. society as a driver of consumption patterns, or 4. our identity within society as a key driver).

As an example, a person may hypothetically reduce processed meat consumption for price and/or health reasons (rational); because people close to them have made similar changes (identity); because their local food store has reduced its range of processed meat products (societal structure); or because their work canteen has stopped serving processed meats at lunch (context). Clearly there is overlap between all of these drivers of change (for example, reduced consumption of meat could be influenced by both the rational and identity-based example, by both the structural and context example, or a combination of all four.

10.2.3 Purchasing decisions are based on a hierarchy of priorities.

What do people prioritise when making conscious purchasing decisions – and what level of knowledge do they have?

Garnett, T., Mathewson, S., Angelides, P., and Borthwick, F (2015) Policies and actions to shift eating patterns: what works? Food Climate Research Network / Chatham House.


Most surveys of people's priorities are in high income countries or among more educated consumers globally, so these findings are not necessarily applicable to all socioeconomic groups in all regions.

Studies show that price and taste are the key conscious motivators in food consumption, although consumers are aware of, and place some importance on, the link between fruit & vegetables and health.

With regard to the environment, consumers want their food to be sustainable, but it is not a priority for them.

Awareness of the link between meat and environmental impact is low. There is however some evidence for changes in consumption when people understand the impacts, although this is often attributable to price and health factors. A strong association has been suggested between meat consumption and cultural factors and especially with regard to concepts of masculinity. (Rothgerber, H. (2013). Real men don’t eat (vegetable) quiche. Masculinity and the justification of meat consumption. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 14, 363–375.

Rozin, P., Hormes, J. M., Faith, M. S., &Wansink, B. (2012). Is meat male? A quantitative multimethod framework to establish metaphoric relationships. The Journal of Consumer Research, 39, 629–643.

Ruby,M. B., & Heine, S. J. (2011). Meat, morals, and masculinity. Appetite, 56, 447–450. 0

 In many countries the availability of cheap meat-based foods, combined with these cultural factors, may present a significant barrier to shifts towards less meat consumption.

Public awareness of local food and organic food is generally higher, and while there are certain advantages attributed to both locally-sourced and organically-grown food, there is a lack of research consensus. The benefits of both can be context-specific (see Chapter 3 for more information on the transport impacts of food, and Chapter 4 for more about organic farming’s role in sustainable food production).

There is a lack of research into public attitudes specifically relating to reduced sugar intake – even though awareness levels are good.