Food choice for healthy diets and environmental sustainability – an indigenous food approach

Food choice for healthy diets and environmental sustainability – an indigenous food approach

Is it safe? Was it manufactured locally? How much does it cost? Can I afford it? Does it taste good or, at the very least, is it familiar?

When people make food choices, they ask themselves questions based on more than just their physiological or nutritional needs. Food choice is a process whereby people contemplate, purchase, prepare, and consume foods and beverages. This process ties together motivations, perceptions, attitudes, and influences that drive behaviour.

Food decisions have a tremendous impact on our general health and well-being, yet are underpinned by a complex and often unconscious interplay of the various factors mentioned above. Like many aspects of human behaviour, influences on consumer food choices vary across different population groups, age-structures, socio-economic statuses, religions, and cultural groups. While making food choice decisions for some may involve a careful conscious thought process, for those who make food choice decisions about buying and cooking food on a regular basis, the process is ingrained to the point where selecting foods happens instinctively and without conscious thought.

Understanding the primary factors that affect food choice is becoming increasingly important in the quest for healthier and more environmentally friendly diets – particularly as people’s dietary patterns have shifted towards more processed convenience foods that have high levels of unhealthy fats and refined grains and away from whole fruits and vegetables.

A global challenge

Given that by the end of the century, the global population is projected to be close to 10 billion, greater effort needs to be directed towards determining how to meet people’s needs for healthy diets that are good for the environment and promote sustainable food systems. We have a responsibility to ensure that the practices applied to meet the current population’s food and nutrition needs do not compromise future generations’ need for sustainable diets. “Sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts that contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations.”

While sustainable diets should ideally be driven by consumer dietary needs, the reality is that consumer preferences are largely influenced by what the market has to offer. In order to provide sustainable food security and appropriate nutrition for all people, the food sector must act more responsibly. To further support the drive towards achieving sustainability, scientific organisations such as the EAT-Lancet Commission are advocating for increased production and availability of indigenous food species produced without compromising food systems to ensure that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the aims of the Paris Agreement are reached. The emphasis is on promoting innovations that are supported by local, regional, and international organisations and that increase food diversity, nutrition, and sustainability.

Indigenous neglected and underutilised food species hold much potential in terms of increasing the diversity of nutrient-dense foods from which consumers can make their choice. Indigenous neglected and underutilised food species are mostly wild or semi-domesticated species adapted to local environments and used as traditional foods that are mostly overlooked as preferred food sources. These food species are generally more resilient to climate change and safeguard the environment when grown in locations to which they are naturally suited. If consumer motives and thought patterns with regards to these foods are understood, it is possible to meet consumer requirements through such indigenous, neglected, and underutilised food species.

Although food choice studies have been conducted globally, not many have tried to understand the multi-dimensional nature of the motives underlying the selection of food in the sub-Saharan Africa region – particularly with reference to factors influencing people’s choice to utilise neglected and underutilised food species. To achieve sustainable consumption, it is important to have a clear understanding of consumer food choice behaviours and the factors that drive these.

Food choice behaviour

As indicated, food choices are influenced by a complex interaction of factors that vary from person to person. The differences that exist among various food environments make it difficult to make generalised recommendations for all sectors of the population. Nonetheless, big commercial brands, such as Coca Cola, have been able to use persuasive marketing techniques to influence consumers and even leverage consumer differences. A plethora of food brands promoting the top three highly commercialised crops grown globally (wheat, maize, and rice), using attractive packaging, and offering lower prices have flooded the African market, including South Africa. However, indigenous neglected food species, as the name implies, rarely receive any exposure and promotion. Although ignorance is largely to blame for neglect, knowing what influences consumer food choices of healthier options opens up a variety of opportunities for diversifying and improving people’s diets using nutritious but underutilised food species that are indigenous to Africa.

In an effort to contribute to the increased production and consumption of indigenous food species as proposed by the EAT-Lancet Commission, our research team would like to better understand food choice behaviour by examining the intentions and willingness of urban consumers as related to underutilised food species as a healthier food option in the City of Tshwane, Pretoria. Understanding how consumers make food choices can counteract the over-reliance on limited, monotonous diets consisting mostly of the top three crops and nudge consumers towards increasing diversity in their diets to include nutritious neglected, underutilised food species indigenous to Africa. This can contribute to strategies designed to address challenges faced by the food environment component of African food systems.