Transitioning to sustainable and healthy consumption


The food and drink we buy and eat have a significant impact not only on our health but also on our environment. We now face a mounting challenge to shift our diet to one that delivers on both health and sustainability, presenting a huge opportunity for food businesses to help consumers on this journey.


The challenge

There’s overwhelming evidence that current diets are impacting the planet and, if this doesn’t change, food security will be jeopardised for future generations.

Many recent reports show that current systems cannot support a global population heading towards 10 billion by 2050 – a population that’s also increasing in prosperity.

There’s substantial scientific evidence that links diets with human health and environmental sustainability.[i] The impacts of animal products significantly exceed those of vegetable substitutes. Meat, aquaculture, eggs, and dairy use around 83% of the world’s farmland and contribute 56-58% of food’s different emissions, despite providing only 37% of our protein and less than one fifth of our calories.[ii]

With 88% of us aspiring to be healthier[iii], most of us are well versed in what a healthy diet looks like – but articulating what is good for the environment isn’t so well understood, and often means different things to different people.

How can we eat a diet that is healthy and sustainable?

 According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation:

Sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”

The recent EAT-Lancet report conducted a thorough environmental and health assessment to model what a healthy and sustainable diet could look like at a global level. While they acknowledge that: “Few decisions about diet, human health and environmental sustainability can be made on the basis of absolute certainty because evidence is incomplete, imperfect, and continually evolving,” these recommendations are widely accepted, at least directionally, even if the precise amount of change required is subject to debate. The principles echo previous assessments and bear enough weight to result in action.

Key principles to move towards the recommendations are:

1.Increase proportion of foods coming from plant-based sources

  • Increase intakes of wholegrain starchy carbohydrates
  • Increase intakes of fruit and vegetables
  • Increase intakes of plant-based proteins including nuts and legumes

2.Reduce animal products

  • Limit dairy foods
  • Significantly reduce intake of animal proteins (especially red and processed meats)

3.Decrease saturated fats and sugars

Although these recommendations are a long way off typical UK diets, they broadly reflect the UK’s current food based dietary guidance. The Eatwell Guide was revised in 2016 and set to address sustainability as well as macro and micronutrients.

Source: The Eatwell Guide: Public Health England


The business opportunity

Some companies are already responding in various ways to meet the rising demand for healthier and more sustainable eating. Awareness of plant-based eating has risen, especially in younger shoppers.

  • 1 in 3 British shoppers claim to be following or are interested in following a vegetarian diet and 1 in 6 British shoppers claim to be following or are interested in following a vegan diet.
  • Google searches for vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian topics reached all-time highs in 2018.
  • 32% of shoppers currently follow or would consider flexitarianism and 33% currently follow or would consider vegetarianism.
  • Reasons for plant based diets are 41% for ethical reasons, 45% health, 30% better for the environment. Health is less of a priority for younger shoppers considering plant based diets[iv].

The trend is reflected in a growing number of vegan/vegetarian products on sale in food stores and on restaurant menus. There is also substantial R&D effort being applied to develop more sustainable food solutions.  Innovations include Sainsbury’s recent popup vegan butchers, plant-based meals such as Wicked Kitchen and out of home restaurants such as Veggie Pret.

Source: Tesco


Source: IGD



Source: IGD


Each of these approaches will compete to win a growing share of consumption. The greater the demand for healthier and more sustainable alternatives, the bigger the commercial opportunity will be.

What are the barriers?


Despite growing awareness of some of the issues around sustainable diets, this knowledge is not widespread and does not necessarily elicit action.


Diets do evolve, but they tend to change slowly for many shopper groups. Most people are creatures of habit when it comes to selecting and preparing food.

UK food culture

Traditionally, many UK meals are based around a meat or fish centre. Therefore, a more plant-based diet may be a harder shift to achieve in the UK than some other countries. The BBC’s Good Food Nation Survey 2016 found that many people still regard meat as a core part of every meal – (49%) stating that ‘a meal isn’t a meal without meat.[v]


If solutions require more cooking from scratch (which may not necessarily be the case), this would require less reliance on convenience foods. For many people, convenience is paramount and many lack the skills or equipment to cook. YouGov has found that nearly one in eight people in the UK avoid cooking food from scratch[vi].


Many perceive that healthier diets are more expensive. 69% of shoppers agree that eating healthily is more expensive than eating unhealthily.[vii]

There is also the feeling by many that ethical and sustainable products may be more expensive.[viii]


Meat and dairy are nutrient dense foods. As well as fats and protein, they provide many micronutrients, including iron, zinc, B vitamins and calcium. 46% of shoppers agree ‘I am concerned that I will miss out on key nutrients if I follow a vegan diet.”  If animal products are to reduce, what they’re replaced with is key to ensure nutrient deficiencies do not occur, especially in certain population groups.

What is IGD doing?

We’re working with our research partner, Walnut Unlimited, the human understanding agency. We are conducting consumer research through the lens of behaviour economics, exploring the levers that will help consumers transition towards healthier and more sustainable diets. We’ll identify the opportunities this presents for retailers, manufacturers and out of home eating, and share our recommendations next year.

We anticipate that there will be a need for both education and ‘nudge’ approaches, making change as attractive and easy as possible for the consumer. It is hugely important for future generations that there is a dietary shift, at pace and at scale – and we know it won’t be easy. As stated by the Forum for the Future, “Sophisticated behavioural change tactics and influencers may be key in reshaping diets to include a greater proportion and range of nutritious plant proteins” [ix]

Our research has just begun, and we will look forward to sharing our findings with you early next year.

Get in touch if you’d like to get involved in this project or to share your thoughts.


[i] Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems 

[ii] Reducing food’s environmental impact – Joseph Poore 

[iii] IGD ShopperVista 2019

[iv] IGD ShopperVista 2019

[v] How we eat now, what’s new and what’s next, 2016 BBC Good Food sites/default/files/editorfiles/2016/11/report_v16_low.pdf

[vi] Non-cooks: selling to those who don’t cook from scratch, YouGov, December 2014 news/2017/09/14/one-eight-brits-avoid-cooking-scratch/

[vii] IGD ShopperVista 2019

[ix] Forum for the Future: The Future of Sustainability 


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