Even if in today’s world everyone seems an expert about food and believe to make the best choices, what we should start asking is: what are the most competent and trustworthy sources to listen to? To answer this question, in Academia a growing number of researchers, besides investigating the critical issues surrounding our food system, are also trying to communicate the results to the citizens at large. I thought that, as a young researcher, I should give it a try!
In the last years, many terms like healthy, organic, low-fat, free-from, sustainable have become overused in the food sector, but what do they actually mean? What do consumers really pay attention when they choose products? And what choices are better for their health? It’s difficult to get a singular answer! Food choices are the result of individual psychological and social factors (cultural context, societal values) and the type, framing, and understanding of information. With that said, understanding consumer reactions to messages about food and nutrition is an essential basis for promoting a healthy diet.
Lecture at the EFSA summer school, Parma, May 2018
Although today’s consumers can make informed decisions about which foods, and in what quantities, are best for a healthy lifestyle, in recent years in the European Union (EU) there has been an increase of diet-related health problems caused by unhealthy and over-consumption of food (e.g. overweight, obesity and other chronic diet-related diseases). Unfortunately, attempts to increase public awareness with the increasing availability of health information have not significantly affected food purchase and eating habits. Often, too much information on the label is unread or misunderstood by consumers, especially because many claims use overly scientific or regulatory language.
However, the growing literature in behavioral economics also suggests another way to help consumers and it is based on the fact that food choices are often influenced by subtle and sometimes marketing irrelevant cues rather than main information on the label. Therefore, there is a growing interest in the potential for changing people’s behaviors by altering the ‘choice architecture’ that frames their consumption (size or color of the packaging, names, venues of the consumption, etc).
Since my childhood, I have been interested in the area of food, but only through University life I have become more and more involved in food science. As a student, I had the pleasure to study this topic in Italy, Sweden, the UK, in Spain and Hungary and in all these places I found the same common element: the passion of the people working and researching in the food area.
Coalition for healthy school food programme, Ithaca, NY
Now, inspired by scientists and experts doing exciting research on this topic and thanks to my MSc in Food Science and Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics, I decided to understand better what is behind our food choices in my new project entitled “CONSUMEHealth. Using consumer science to improve healthy eating habits”. This is an EU project (No. 749514) funded by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) programme, which is part of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research funding scheme.
For doing this, I am currently a Visiting Fellow in the Dyson School of Applied Economics at Cornell University in the US. Cornell is currently ranked in the world’s top five universities for agriculture & forestry and with a long history in consumer behavior studies. Afterward, acquired expertise will be disseminated through publications, seminars and teaching classes during the 12-month mandatory return period at the Department of Food and Drug, University of Parma in Italy.
Focus group about eating habits at the University
What is the most important part of my project? It’s that you can follow me … so if you enjoyed this story, I welcome you to visit my personal blog and subscribe to the newsletter! Welcome on board!