Seed money highlights: Misconceptions of Millennials

Interview with Dr Julia Blasch, Dr Harry Aiking and Dr Meike Morren.

12/04/2020 | 3:02 PM

Sippora Zoutewelle interviews Dr Julia Blasch, Dr Harry Aiking – both Faculty of Science, and Dr Meike Morren – SBE on the subject ‘Misconceptions of Millennials – An interdisciplinary pilot study on consumer misconceptions about sustainable food choices and motivations for dietary change’.

What was your motivation to apply for ASI seed money?
Many consumers have misconceptions about the environmental impact of food products as well as about what constitutes a ‘healthy diet’. We want to understand what these misconceptions are and what motivates consumers to choose a particular diet. Getting a better understanding of these matters is important in order to know how to stimulate sustainable diets. The overarching goal for us, however, is to improve collaboration between faculties at VU Amsterdam. Food is an important subject in every faculty; it is associated with food production, land use and degradation, poverty, scarcity, and obesity, among others. Therefore, we thought that our project would be a good fit for ASI.

Can you share some insights with regard to your project? What are the highlights and main findings?
Our research is still ongoing, but so far we have already obtained some interesting preliminary results. We asked students for their shopping lists of last month, but also conducted surveys and interviews with them. After analyzing the outcomes, we realized that environmental concerns play a less prominent role in food choices than health-related factors. We thought that among students, product prices would also be a determining factor, given their limited budgets. However, this didn’t turn out to be the case. Furthermore, we attempted to gain insight into what type of information respondents need to make more sustainable food choices. This is a combination between declarative knowledge: knowing what food options are sustainable; and procedural knowledge: learning how to cook a vegetarian meal. We helped students to gain declarative knowledge, by showing them an index in which food groups are categorized based on their metabolic energy, nutrient density and greenhouse gas emissions. We are planning to fill the procedural knowledge gap by providing recipes and asking students to prepare them. In a later stage, we will evaluate whether providing this knowledge makes it more likely for students to make sustainable food choices in the future.

What challenges did you encounter along the way?
Since our team consists of researchers from the marketing as well as the environmental economics and environmental geography department, we all use jargon from our fields and use different methodologies. So when we initially started working together it took us some time to understand each other, but it definitely paid off. We learned a lot from each other. Besides working interdisciplinary, we had some challenges with the surveys as well. For example, we asked respondents to tell us something about their diet. But what do they exactly mean when they say that they are flexitarians? Eating meat once a week? Or eating vegetarian sometimes? There are different ways to interpret this, which makes it harder for us to fully understand what their diet looks like.

Next steps?
Our focus initially was only on VU students. After this, we extended our research to a representative sample of the Dutch population and also tested information interventions that stimulate the change towards a more sustainable diet. We recently finished a working paper on the topic and hope that it will be published soon.