A Study Reveals a Close Link Between Perceptions About Sustainability and Healthy Food Choices

Many people are keen on eating healthy, but they also appreciate food sustainability.

Gudrun Sproesser
Gudrun Sproesser

Many people often intuitively equate “healthy” with being “sustainable”. A study by researchers at the Johannes Kepler University Linz, the University of Constance, and the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences is focusing on whether or not this perception corresponds to reality.

A new international research study has revealed that many consumers clearly correlate their perception of sustainability with how healthy their food choices and meals are. Univ. Prof. Dr. Gudrun Sproesser, head of the JKU’s Department of Health Psychology, remarked: "We looked at the degree of variability between the widespread perception that healthy meals are also sustainable and whether or not the perception changes based on the actual correlation between health and meal sustainability. We also explored if the type of meal, such as a vegan meal, influences this presumed correlation."

The study involved a total of 5,021 customers rating 29 meal options at a public canteen as to what they believed to be a healthy and sustainable food choice. The exact values relating to environmental sustainability and healthy eating were also determined by applying a special algorithm to analyze the precise meal recipes. The findings revealed that participants clearly made a significant correlation between sustainability and healthy food, meaning they automatically believed that healthy food was also sustainable. Sprosser points out: "Interestingly, however, there was no correlation between this perception and the actual link between environmental sustainability and how healthy the meal is." This is because vitamin-rich food can also be produced using methods deemed harmful to the environment and, in turn, sustainable food can be unhealthy.

Researchers also discovered that the perception of "healthy = sustainable" was not influenced by the meals' other attributes (such as vegan ingredients) or individual attributes (such as the consumer’s gender, or individual dietary style). However, the correlation between perceived sustainability and healthy eating was higher among older participants than among younger participants, who were somewhat less likely to make this connection.

The JKU psychologist added: "The findings clearly indicate that consumers need to be made more aware about the connection between food sustainability and healthy food." In the future, for example, sustainability labels on food would be a practical approach, allowing consumers to make more informed decisions about what they eat while simultaneously doing their part to protect the environment.

Read the paper: The “healthy = sustainable” heuristic: Do meal or individual characteristics affect the association between perceived sustainability and healthiness of meals? | PLOS Sustainability and Transformation, opens an external URL in a new window