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Do Ethical Considerations Shape Our Consumption of Animal Products?

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of ethical dilemmas concerning the environmental impact of animal products. In a new study published in BMC Public Health,Péneau and colleagues investigate how these concerns impact food purchasing and dietary behavior.

Although dietary guidelines typically recommend a certain quantity of animal products, including meat, fish, and dairy products, many consumers are increasingly aware of ethical issues involving the foods they eat. These issues can include concerns about the environmental impact of industrialized meat production, overfishing, or concerns about animal welfare. However, we don’t really know whether and how these concerns are shaping consumer behavior in the face of health recommendations by trusted government bodies.

In the journal BMC Public Health, Péneau and colleagues published a new study investigating how these ethical considerations are affecting people’s dietary habits in France. The researchers included 22,936 adults who completed questionnaires about their motivations when purchasing meat, fish, and dairy products, which included questions about health and environmental impacts. In addition to these questionnaires, the researchers collected information on actual dietary intake as well as socioeconomic variables such as age and sex. They then compared how an ethical dilemma played out in consumer dietary choices.

The researchers found that 13% of participants faced a dilemma when buying meat, as a result of their understanding of environmental concerns regarding meat consumption versus the healthy dietary recommendations. For fish purchases, 12% of participants faced a similar dilemma, but only five percent of participants faced the same dilemma when buying dairy products. Individuals who were women, older, or from low-income backgrounds were more likely to report a dilemma. Education was not tied to the incidence of ethical concerns; however, it is likely that individuals from low-income backgrounds, in particular, are facing compounded dilemmas about the perceived importance of meat as well as the cost of meat and dairy products. Those individuals who did report a dilemma tended to consume less meat and dairy and had a better diet overall.

Péneau and colleagues conclude that environmental concerns about animal products do not result in reduced adherence to nutritional guidelines. Institutions and campaigns that aim to improve people’s diets, however, need to address environmental concerns and provide individuals with guidelines on both healthy and environmentally friendly food choices. Future work must address whether these same dynamics are at play outside of France.

Written by C.I. Villamil

Reference: Peneau et al. Dilemma between health and environmental motives when purchasing animal food products: sociodemographic and nutritional characteristics of consumers. 2017. BMC Public Health 17:876.



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