To (m)eat or not to (m)eat? Ethical dilemmas in food choice

A study published yesterday in BMC Public Health assesses profiles of individuals reporting health and environmental dilemmas when purchasing meat, fish and dairy products. Are consumers' environmental concerns in line with nutritional guideline recommendations? We take a closer look at the research.

Environmental impact

‘You are what you eat’ – The concept that you need to eat good food in order to be fit and healthy has gained meaning on a wider scale. While good dietary choices boost one’s own health, they can also benefit the planet. Dietary guidelines often give quantitative recommendations for the intake of animal products; however, in light of increasing encouragement to eat less meat to lessen the effects of climate change, consumers have become more concerned by the environmental impacts associated with meat production.

Flickr: Anders Steen NilsenRaising animals for food requires enormous amounts of land, food, energy, and water and causes animal suffering. According to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute, a staggering 51% or more of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture. Meat consumption in the European Union has reduced and stabilized at around 42m tons over the last 15 years, and with the number of gluten-free products available doubling every year in Europe and the US, there has been in an increase in the consumption of plant proteins from beans and lentils.

Strong claims like ‘You can’t be a meat-eating environmentalist’ have spurred disputes between vegetarians and meat-eaters but more and more people are trying to make major changes to their diets. New labels such as ‘flexitarians’ (only eat meat sometimes) and ‘reducetarians’ (aim to eat less meat) are an indication of how different groups of people are making efforts to cut down on their meat consumption one way or another.

The conscious customer

So how do consumers choose their foods when they have to consider dietary guidelines as well as the potential environmental impact of their purchasing behaviors?

A large study published yesterday in BMC Public Health is the first to investigate potential dilemmas between health and environmental considerations when purchasing animal food. The authors of the study specifically look at the socio-demographic profiles of individuals reporting health and environmental dilemmas when purchasing meat, fish and dairy products, and compare the diet quality of individuals with and without dilemma.

The cross-sectional study involves 22,936 subjects from the NutriNet-Santé cohort study. Volunteers were recruited via multimedia campaigns and completed a set of self-administered, web-based questionnaires assessing dietary intake, physical activity, anthropometric characteristics, lifestyle, socioeconomic conditions and health status. At inclusion and once a year thereafter, participants were invited to complete three non-consecutive 24-h dietary records, which were validated against urinary biomarkers. In order for a dilemma to be assessed, participants were asked to rate items on a 4-point Likert scale: strongly disagree/disagree/agree/strongly agree to statements including: “I purchase [meat/fish/dairy products] for health issues.”

Results of the study show that around 10% of individuals are torn between health and environmental considerations when purchasing meat or fish, and this is the case for only 5% for dairy products. Older participants, women, and low income individuals are more likely to report facing this dilemma. Participants who report dilemmas for meat and dairy products consume less of these foods and have a better dietary quality overall. In addition, participants with a meat dilemma show better adherence to meat/fish/eggs guidelines.

Sustainability and the way forward

The results of this study indicate that having environmental concerns is not contradictory to adherence with nutritional guidelines. National dietary guidelines should therefore be adapted to take into account both health and environmental sustainability as we are already seeing in some countries, such as Germany, where dilemmas in food choice will probably be lower.

As we cannot say with certainty that eating a vegetarian diet is any better for the environment, we do need to acknowledge and understand that there are trade-offs in what foods we choose to eat. For example, flying in green beans from Kenya to the UK may be seen as unsustainable due to air miles, but it also supports up to 1.5 million people in some of the poorest regions of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ultimately though, if you are contributing to food waste, then your diet is unsustainable regardless of whether you are a vegan, vegetarian, or a meat eater.

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