SHiFT’s research partner meeting: Highlights from WP1 on consumers and their food environments

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In November 2023, the CGIAR Research Initiative on Sustainable Healthy Diets through Food Systems Transformation (SHiFT) held its first research partner meeting to share research findings, evaluate progress, and set goals for the future. Researchers from SHiFT’s Work Package 1 on Consumers and their Food Environments (WP1) presented findings from their work on consumer behavior, diets, and nutrition in Viet Nam.

SHiFT’s WP1 focuses on factors at the individual level and within food environments that shape the diets of marginalized populations, including women and youth, and, in turn, on how changing demand affects the food environment. Researchers work to characterize food consumption, dietary patterns, and food environments among these populations and identify key drivers and inequalities.

Achieving a shift toward sustainable healthy diets requires an understanding of the many complex factors that influence consumer decision-making. To better understand the drivers underlying food choices in Viet Nam, SHiFT WP1 researchers conducted both qualitative and quantitative studies in the country. Both studies include a focus on adolescents, as there is little evidence on their nutritional status in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). This age group is also especially vulnerable to negative changes in food environments, which are rapidly occurring in urban areas of LMICs.

Perceptions of healthy and sustainable foods

The qualitative study in Hanoi examined perceptions, motivations, abilities, and opportunities related to healthy and sustainable food consumption among mothers of adolescents. Harriette Snoek, a researcher at Wageningen University and Research (WUR), presented findings from this work, which involved focus group discussions with women.

As part of the study, participants were asked to rank the healthiness and sustainability of different foods, and explain their choices. The design for the study was based on the World Index for Sustainability and Health (WISH), which is used to evaluate diets for healthiness and sustainability, and the Motivation, Opportunity, and Ability Framework for understanding behavior change.

The findings showed that when consumers make decisions about what to eat, they rely more on their skills and past experiences than on nutrition knowledge. Perceptions of which foods are sustainable and better for the planet were centered on people’s daily lives, including views on pollution within their living environment, food packaging, and home compost use, rather than aspects related to food production such as energy use or greenhouse gas emissions.

In general, fruits, vegetables, beans, and  tofu were considered healthy, natural, and good for the environment. Perceptions of meat consumption were more complex — participants ranked meat products poorly for their negative impacts on the environment but had mixed opinions on their role in a healthy diet. Consumers valued meat for providing essential ingredients but also acknowledged the importance of balancing intake and had negative perceptions of intensive livestock farming due to its use of non-natural components, such as hormones and feed additives.

Diets and nutrition of Vietnamese adolescents and their mothers

In the quantitative study, SHiFT researchers from WP1 assessed the dietary quality and nutritional status of adolescents and their mothers in rural, peri-urban, and urban areas. Phuong Nguyen, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, discussed the findings from this study, explaining that it in addition to its focus on adolescents, it also aimed to characterize the food environment by assessing the availability and marketing of foods and beverages.

The research team collected data from low- and middle-income communities in the three study areas. Using the Global Diet Quality Score, the researchers found that most adolescents and their mothers faced a moderate risk of nutrient inadequacy and diet-related noncommunicable disease outcomes. The researchers also found that overweight and obesity was a major concern among adolescents in urban areas; for mothers, this risk was found to be higher in rural areas.

The study found that sugar-sweetened beverages and ultra-processed foods were more easily available than fruits or vegetables in all three areas. Advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages was more prevalent in rural areas, however. Overall, this study highlights the need for tailored interventions to address suboptimal diets, which are associated with under- and over-nutrition, and diet-related noncommunicable diseases. The WP1 team is currently conducting additional analyses to understand how adolescents’ diets are affected by their exposure to the food environment.

Watch the video below to learn more about Work Package 1.

The International Food Policy Research Institute and the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT lead SHiFT in close collaboration with Wageningen University and Research and with contributions from the International Potato Center. SHiFT combines high-quality nutritional and social science research capacity with development partnerships to generate innovative, robust solutions that contribute to healthier, more sustainable dietary choices and consumption of sustainable healthy diets. It builds on CGIAR’s unparalleled track record of agricultural research for development, including ten years of work on food systems and nutrition under the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH). Under Work Package 4 of SHIFT, researchers from WUR, IFPRI, and the Alliance are working together with national partners and experts to develop, test and apply decision-support tools for trade-off analyses, enabling stakeholders to better navigate the potential trade-offs that are expected to emerge from the food systems transformation agenda.

Header image: Urban street food scene in Vietnam. Photo by Georgina Smith/CIAT from Flickr

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