Centre for Rural Economy


Consumer heuristics and biases in the identification of sustainable food

There is limited understanding of the cognitive processes a consumer uses when assessing the impact of her food choices on health and the environment.

Consumers analyse information (e.g. in food labels, traditional communication routes, or digital technology) using cognitive shortcuts, known as “heuristics”, which allow them to make efficient rather than optimal choices.

Inferential reasoning suggests that when assessing sustainability (health and environmental), consumers estimate the impact of their choices on the basis of the information provided and personal expectations, but these estimates might differ substantially from the real impact of consumption. Consumers also assess sustainability on a binary moral scale that classifies food options as sustainable vs unsustainable.

Policy often accommodates this reasoning: for instance, “traffic-light” labelling for nutrition classifies foods as either “healthy”, “unhealthy”, or somewhere in the middle. However, there is currently little knowledge of how consumers interpret this classification.

The current empirical exercise uses a survey to collect information on what consumers perceive as environmentally sustainable or unsustainable, as well as healthy or unhealthy. Importantly, perception will be measured both numerically (i.e. carbon and calories contents) and categorically (i.e. traffic-light-style labels) to identify potential biases in the consumer assessment of sustainability.