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Using consumer science to improve healthy eating habits

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - CONSUMEHealth (Using consumer science to improve healthy eating habits)

Reporting period: 2019-06-28 to 2020-06-27

Although today’s consumer can make informed decisions about which foods, and in what quantities, are best for a healthy life style, in recent years in the European Union there has been an increase of diet-related health problems caused by unhealthy and over-consumption of food (e.g. overweight, obesity, some types of cancer and other chronic diet-related diseases).
As reported by the World Health Organization (WHO), the adult disease burden is due to health risk behaviors that start during adolescence (e.g. unhealthy eating practices). For example, most of the population does not consume the recommended daily amount of fruit and vegetables, nuts, and seeds. On the other hand, the consumption of added sugars, processed meats, and trans fats is higher than the recommended daily intake. Therefore, the transition from a primarily meat-based diet to one with lower meat content and an increased proportion of vegetarian ingredients has attracted considerable attention from researchers and food businesses alike.
In the last decades, there has been growing interest in the development and implementation of health promotion interventions both in the workplace and schools and college settings. Even though studies exploring eating behavior in adolescents, young adults and adults have been done in recent years, theories to explain such behaviors are still moving from the nascent to the mature stage.
This project aims to understand better consumer choice regards healthy eating habits, a key issue for the EU in contributing to healthy and nutritious food for preserving life and making positive impact on society.
The main objectives of this Marie Curie project are twofold: (1) understand what drives consumers to make healthier food choices and (2) provide evidence-based recommendations for stakeholders and policy makers to develop and communicate innovative win-win solutions to improve eating habits and contribute to the well-being and healthy ageing of citizens.
CONSUMEHealth is on a good track in reaching all the specific objectives during the project lifetime and is progressing well. For the first 24 months of the fellowship, Dr. Sogari carried out his activities at Cornell University, under the supervision of Professor Miguel Gomez (Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. All the research milestones for the first reporting period have been either completed or in progress to be finalized. The work for the incoming phase of the project at the University of Parma (starting month 25) has already been discussed with the supervisor Dr. Cristina Mora. Moreover, also the secondment at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been planned and scheduled from January-June 2020.
The Project has two main outputs which build on each other in order to produce the major contributions:
1. Qualitative research for initial exploration using personal interviews to a group of stakeholders (i.e. experts in food science and consumer behavior) and focus groups techniques to a group of consumers (e.g. college students in US and Italy)
2. Large consumer surveys with questionnaires, choice experiments and sensory analysis, designed using the information gained from the qualitative research.

1. In the qualitative research, a group of University students in US and Italy participated in six semi-structured focus groups. A qualitative software, CAQDAS Nvivo11 Plus, was used to create codes that categorized the group discussions while using an Ecological Model. Common barriers to healthy eating were time constraints, unhealthy snacking, convenience high-calorie food, stress, high prices of healthy food, and easy access to junk food. Conversely, enablers to healthy behavior were improved food knowledge and education, meal planning, involvement in food preparation, and being physically active.
2. Two separate surveys were carried out in an American College Dining venue. The first study was conducted with a student sample (n=285) with the aim to investigate the motivations to process information, consumers attitude and intention to purchase towards a novel healthier burger. A questionnaire was distributed right after the students consumed a burger in which beef was partially replaced by mushroom (30%) compared to a traditional recipe. We find that providing information highlighting the positive attributes of this novel burger has a positive impact on its acceptability. In addition, participants’ attitudes significantly influence their behavioral intention, which is a good predictor for actual consumption behavior. These findings can inform future marketing strategies to simultaneously reduce meat consumption and increase vegetable intakes in diets among college students.
The second study examined the effects of source credibility and message framing on including whole grain pasta in college student diet in the next month. Data collection was carried out across several dining halls US. 497 college students, who regularly consume pasta, participated to this study. An online questionnaire with attitudinal scale was distributed during dinner time. The results show that attitude (a person’s favorable or unfavorable evaluation of the behavior), subjective norms (what important others think one should do), and perceived behavioral control (the perceived ease or difficulty of performing the behavior) are significant predictors of the intention to consume whole grain pasta in the coming month.
Most existing research on eating behavior has limited impact on health or public policy. This is partly due to the difficulty in applying findings in practice (e.g. limited budget, low feasibility, low know-how from practitioners). This project is investigating healthy dietary habits through behavioral economics, modelling choice in different settings (online, in lab and in field settings such as college dining venue) to discover which changes (micro-environments and types of messages) and interventions are most effective. This new approach is expected to increase the validity of the results and also produce information useful for the development of new techniques, contributing to discussion among food scientists.
In 2018, after an initial explorative work, I published one paper reporting the qualitative research findings on barriers and enabler of healthy eating among college students. This study highlights the importance of consulting college students when developing healthy eating interventions across the campus for dining services or programs. As suggested by the findings in the food and nutrition field, researchers should not only focus on individual-level factors, but they should also integrate socio-ecological aspects into the analysis. Dining halls and other University facilities should ensure the availability of healthy food choices, as well as promoting physical activity practices regularly. These education actors should also provide food education and food preparation classes, to make students more knowledgeable on how to cook and better plan meals. Giving college students the necessary skills to be more aware of what a healthy diet style means would empower them to make better food choices throughout their life.