Food Choice Studies

We all eat each day and in our current food environment we are presented with a wide array of foods. Many different factors influence the food choices we make including: availability, advertising, habit, cost, lifestage, and health. Social scientists study the process of food choice. This is one area of research at the Center for Food & Environment.

Students’ Understandings of Food Systems and Global Sustainability
Before we developed the LiFE curriculum series, we wanted to understand how children think about food in relation to the technological and social food systems (i.e. how food is grown, processed, marketed, and consumed) and the impact of the food system on the natural environment.

In 1999, we conducted 24 one-hour, qualitative interviews with children, using foods and word-cards as props for conversational and in-depth probing. We found that students held a “black-box” (by this we mean a mysterious and undeveloped) understanding of what happens to food between the farm and the store.

When describing how food gets transformed, students used reasoning (e.g. “can I make something up?”) rather than prior knowledge. They based their reasoning on the look and taste of the food — things they had experienced — rather than the quality or safety of the food. Regarding transportation, they described trucks as the major mode of transportation for food and explained that trucks were a source of pollution. Yet, they stopped short of relating the transport of food to pollution.

In terms of technology, students describe it as doing “things people cannot do” and factories as magical places that create uniform food (e.g. cereals that are all exactly the same size and shape). All students stated they really knew little about what happens in factories. The results of these interviews, and further studies of students’ understandings of food systems were the basis for the development of the Growing Food and Farm to Table & Beyond modules of LiFE. Funded by Science Education Partnership Award of the National Center for Research Resources, a component of the National Institutes of Health.

Family Meals Study
Family meals have been shown to have many benefits. These benefits can range from more healthful food choices at meals to fewer risky behaviors, such as smoking or drug use, in teens. We collaborated with the Graduate School of Nutrition Sciences, Nagoya University of Arts and Sciences in Japan. This research expands their previous research on family meal patterns from around the world. The Japanese researchers had conducted previous research on family meals in Japan, Australia, and Korea. Our research included a sample of children from New York, Texas, and California. We found that half of the youth ate dinner with all their immediate family members at least five days a week, whereas only 17% ate breakfast with all family members at least five days a week. We then looked at the evening meal, to see if the determinants of behavior from the theory of planned behavior, a psychosocial theory, would help explain factors related to family dinner practices. Indeed, youth who ate family meals were more likely to intend to eat family meals in the future, and were more likely to say that they believed that the norm in their family was to eat meals together. They were also less likely to say that not having time was a barrier to having family meals. Additionally, youth who ate breakfast alone ate breakfast less often, reported communicating with their families during all meals less often, and perceived themselves as less healthy. This research indicates that the Theory of Planned Behavior might be useful for creating interventions to increase the frequency of family meals. Research funded by: Iijima Memorial Foundation for the Promotion of Food Science and Technology, Japan.

Understanding Why Children and Teens Eat What They Eat
One of Dr. Contento’s primary areas of research has been “food choice” research — understanding why people make the food choices they do. It is a complicated process. Think about everything that might be going on when someone makes a food choice: how the food will taste; how much it will cost; past experiences with the food; what others will think; how easy it will be to prepare; how nutritious it is; what ads there are about the food; and much more.