Consumer research on sustainable eating and food waste

Consumers strongly believe both animal- and plant-based diets can be sustainable; leftovers, fresh produce are wasted far more often than meat, dairy products

Environmental sustainability and food waste are top-of-mind for many consumers, but there are sharp differences of beliefs and behaviours between different groups, according to a new pair of surveys by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation. 

At the Future of Food Summit, the IFIC Foundation released two studies – A Survery of Consumers’ Attitudes and Perceptions of Environmentally Sustainable and Healthy Diets and A Survey of Consumer Behaviour and Perception of Food Waste

“Technology, an increasing focus on health and wellness, and consumers’ desires to empower and inform their food decisions are transforing food production and our diets,” said Joseph Clayton, CEO of the IFIC Foundation. 

“The Future of Food Summit explores how we can address these changes and channel our knowledge to improve the food system and food choices. The IFIC Foundation’s new research is meant to supplement those goals and add to our understanding of consumer attitides and behaviours,” he added. 

Environmentally sustainable diets survey

Last spring, the IFIC Foundation’s 14th annual Food and Health Survey found that 54% of consumers say it’s at least somewhat important that the products they buy be produced in an environmentally sustainable way. The Foundation conducted a follow-up survey to identify attitudes and behaviours. 

Interestingly, when asked which aspects of an environmentally sustainable diet are important to consumers, “what I eat is healthy for the planet” was the top response, followed by “what I eat is nutritious”. Other factors – such as ingredients people know and recognise, foods that are produced using fewer natural resources, and foods with recyclable packaging – lagged behind. 

Among those for whom “healthy for the planet” was a top answer, men outnumbered women (15% vs. 8%), and college graduates outnumbered non-college graduates (17% vs. 8%), while, conversely, people from the Midwest were far less likely to choose that response (just 5%) than other regions (9% in the South, 15% in the Northeast and 17% in the West). 

66% of consumers think an environmentally sustainable diet can include protein from both animals sources and plant-based sources, while only 10% disagreed. But there was an education gap in the responses, with 73% of college graduates agreeing vs. 62% of non-graduates. 

Nonetheless, animal-based proteins dominate consumers’ diets, with 92% of respondents report consuming protein from animal sources like meat, dairy, eggs and seafood. Age influences protein consumption: Consumers under 45 years are less likely to consume animal proteins (88%), while those 65 and older are much more like to do so (98%). 

On the other hand, 72% of respondents report consuming protein from plant sources. But here too there was an education gap, with 80% of college graduates indicating they consume plant-based proteins vs. 66% of non-college graduates. Taste was far and away the most important factor behind those dietary choices, cited as the top reason of 81% of those who consume animal proteins and by 73% of those who eat plant-based proteins. 

When people were asked how much each source of protein they would need to consume to eat an environmentally sustainable diet, the responses varied: Only 27% said they would need to consume more plant-based protein, while 38% said such a diet would require the same amount of plant protein, and 11% said it would require less. 

When it comes to animal protein, 26% said they would need to consume less to attain an environmentally sustainable and healthy diet, while 53% said it would require the same amount or more protein from animal sources. 

Consumers were also asked what comes to mind when they think of environmentally sustainable animal protein. “No added hormones” topped the list at 50%, followed by “grass-fed animals at 40%, and “locally raised” at 32%. Just 21% of respondents associated animals that were fed an organic diet with environmentally sustainable animal protein. 

“Environmental sustainability is clearly on the mind of many consumers, but sometimes in ways we might not expect,” Clayton said. “For instance, some consider nutritious food or recognisable ingredients as part of an environmentally sustainable diet.

“The findings also suggest that consumers believe that animal- and plant-based diets can co-exist as sustainable options – particularly in the US.” 

Food waste survey

Food waste is considered one of the more pressing human health and sustainability issues today, with the United Nations estimating that fully one-third of food produced never reaches a human mouth. 

When asked to choose the top three types of food that most often end up in the garbage, 74% of consumers discarded leftovers of foods prepared at home, 67% threw out fresh produce and 50% tossed leftovers from restaurants. No other food – including meats, eggs or dairy products, or shelf-stable items – were reported to be wasted by more than 27%. Women were more likey than men to throw out meal leftovers from home (78% vs. 68%). 

So Why does food get wasted at home? In a question that asked consumers to choose their top two reasons, eight-three percent reported spoiled or stale food as the most common reason foods ended up in the trash, followed by cleaning out the pantry (49%), and others in the household who simply didn’t want to eat the foods (28%). In terms places of food choices, food waste is always on the mind of 34% of consumers while grocery shopping, 28% while eating at home and 19% while eating out. 

Hispanic/Latinx consumers (47%), those under 45 years old (45%) and people in the Northeast (44%) were more likely than other groups to always think about food waste while grocery shopping, with similar demographic results when eating at home or eating out. 

Financial considerations are the main reason people think about food waste, regardless the location, with “reducing the amount of money spent” cited by 42% while grocery shopping, 35% when eating out, and 32% when eating at home. Age correlates with these responses while grocery shopping, with 45% of those under 45 years old citing the money they spend as their top food-aste consideration, but only 32% of those 65 and older offered the same response. Similar splits exist for those eating at home or eating out. 

Many consumers report ways they try to reduce food waste: 60% store their foods to maximise shelf life, 54% keep their pantries organised, 51% make grocery lists, and 48% make meal plans. Among those who eat out, 62% take leftovers home, 47% order small meals, and 33% share their meals. Women are far more lifely than men to make a grocery list (58% vs. 43%). 

“Food waste isn’t just an environmental or health issue; it’s a moral imperative,” Clayton said. “About 800 million people around the world still go hungry every night, with many more who are undernourished. The more we can understand about attitudes and behaviours around food waste, the more progress we can make towards solving this arduos problem.” 


A Survey of Consumers’ Attitudes and Perceptions of Environmentally Sustainable and Healthy Diets interviewed 1,000 adults 18 years and older from Jun 11 and 12, 2019, and was weighted to ensure proportional results. It had a margin of error of 3.1% at a 95% confidence level. A Survery of Consumer Behaviours & Perceptions of Food Waste employed the same methodology, and was conducted Aug 13 and 14, 2019.