The University of Cambridge ran its first event of the EIT Food AnnualFoodAgenda series on 12 March, 2019. Titled ‘I’m a Confused Consumer, Get Me Out of Here!’, this was a public talk within the University’s Science Festival 2019. It attracted an audience of almost 90 people – across a huge age range of 13 to 70 – to the Department of Plant Sciences in central Cambridge.
The first speaker was Professor Dame Theresa Marteau DBE, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University. She told us that even with the right information, and even for people who are motivated to change their diets, the supermarket has a strong influence on our buying behaviour. Supermarkets are not designed for health: products are sold in large packs with discounts on larger volumes, and aisle-end special offers are usually on unhealthier products. Research shows that the larger the pack or portion, the more we consume. Smaller packs and portions with proportionate pricing, better labelling, and better availability of healthier products could redesign supermarkets for health.
Dr David Good from the University’s Department of Psychology said research suggests that when we make choices in the supermarket, many factors influence what we choose to buy from the seemingly endless choices available. Most of us look for a quick way of deciding, for example by following ‘style gurus’ or others we identify with as similar to ourselves. These factors predate and persist beyond the moment of choosing. What we choose to eat and drink reflects how we view some aspects of our identity. Making choices outside of that remit can be difficult. Patterns of choice can be influenced by addressing these factors.
Finally, Dr Jag Srai, Head of the Centre of International Manufacturing, talked about how the rapid growth of online grocery shopping has transformed the UK retail landscape. Overall, 30% of consumer shopping is delivered direct to our door. He asked whether the benefits of convenience and speed for consumers can be sustainable as a food supply model, or whether we are driving increased transport costs, carbon footprint and use of precious resources. His current research is looking at whether these online platforms may in fact provide new opportunities to connect consumers with their local retailers, to make more informed grocery choices, and reduce waste. Sophisticated ‘nudge’ techniques might enable sustainable options to be communicated to online shoppers.
Professor Howard Griffiths, Co-Chair of the Cambridge Global Food Security network, then invited questions from the audience and there was great interest in the topics under discussion. Audience feedback rated the event highly, with comments including:
“Interesting that choice of friends can affect your eating habits.”
“Good speakers and very interesting topic, with good amount of time for questions.”
“Really interesting conversations.”