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Man eating a garnished salad. © INRA, NICOLAS Bertrand

Striking a balance between animal and vegetable products in diets

Contents
Updated on 11/13/2015
Published on 10/19/2015
Keywords:

Since 2014, INRA has been developing a research programme to explore what determines the consumption of animal and vegetable products. The production and consumption of animal products have environmental and economic repercussions on a global scale. Ultimately, redressing balances between the consumption of animal and vegetable products in developed countries, and managing the increase in their consumption in emerging ones, is key for ensuring food security and a sound environment worldwide.

This programme focuses on the following questions:
•    What are the trends in consumer behaviour when it comes to choosing and consuming animal and vegetable products?
•    What steps can be taken to shape consumer behaviour, but also at industry levels, to best respond to potential shifts in terms of choices/behaviours?
•    What will be the consequences of these changes for markets, industry players, consumer well-being, farmers’ income, the environment and health?

Analysing practices

A portion of this study will focus on analysing existing and alternative practices from the point of view of sustainability. As a first step, a sampling of the French population will be used to describe balances between the nutritional intake from animal and vegetable products, notably depending on the food environment and specific settings (socio-demographic, economic, psychological, buying habits, geographic environment, etc.). Particular attention will be paid to analysing how food is procured, as well as the behaviours and motivations of consumers of meat substitute products, compared with those of regular meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans.

Data gathered on consumption habits will be modelled on a population-wide scale to verify the compatibility of sustainable food parameters in their entirety. The impact of variations in the consumption of animal products on sustainability criteria will be modelled. This phase will reveal what role animal products should play to ensure that all nutritional and environmental constraints are respected.

Studying the role of short food circuits and local supply chains

Another aspect of the study will look at short food circuits from a nutritional and environmental point of view. It will aim to analyse innovations (organisational, technical, social) associated with supply chains, both commercial and non-commercial, that close the gap between production and consumption in food systems, especially urban ones, and to identify the role and type of animal and vegetable products in those circuits. The study will also focus on understanding how practices and networks created by these circuits affect the food behaviours not only of “radical” consumers, but also of those who shape food habits (social workers, local authorities, catering industry, etc.).

Creating a new database platform

The data required for carrying out these studies are generally disparate, lack interoperability, or just plain missing (data about consumption and prices, macro- and micro-nutritional composition, toxicological data and data to analyse life cycles). One of the goals of the study is to create a platform that would bring together databases from different disciplines on questions of sustainability and the quality of food systems, particularly concerning complementarity between animal and vegetable products. The goal is to make information accessible and identify where data is missing, but also to find out how to get (or create) new information and define rules for using it to spawn new research programmes. Lastly, the right computing tools will have to be developed to exploit and pair data.

Identifying what determines preferences for animal- and vegetable-based products

Beyond questions designed to describe food behaviours in a population, factors that determine preferences for animal- and vegetable-based products will be explored. The goal is to gain a better understanding of where perception and preferences for animal products and meat come from and how they evolve, compared with vegetable products. The role these processes play when one type of food is substituted for another will also be studied. To achieve this, researchers will have to look at how sensorial, emotional and cognitive responses among consumers are established, how flexible they are, and how they differ from one individual to another depending on food and diets rich in animal or vegetable products, and on shifts from one to the other. The role different food characteristics such as composition, fat content, protein content and texture play in perception and in consumer choices, and the role of psycho-emotional aspects, conditioning processes and socio-economic factors, will also be identified.

Building a food offer rich in pulses

In France and Europe, the portion of plant-derived protein in diets represents a mere 35 to 40% of total protein intake. To increase this portion, scientific and technical stumbling blocks must be overcome across the entire industry, to be able to offer a diet more in line with nutritional recommendations. In addition to researching factors that determine food choices and individual food preferences, the primary goal of this project is to  acquire general knowledge, by way of  experiments across several sectors, that will lead to new concepts and methods for building a food offer rich in pulses. The new offer should satisfy nutritional, health and organoleptic needs, and allow for the efficient use of resources from production through to consumption.

Public policy

Public policy levers designed to orient consumers to diets that are more environmentally-friendly and make wise use of resources will be assessed based on two major research approaches. The first will focus on animal products and seeks to define public policy in such a way as to orient individual consumers to animal products that have a smaller footprint in terms of resources and the environment. The second involves a more radical change in protein consumption, which comes at a greater cost to consumers, and seeks to identify the most relevant complementarities between animal and vegetable products in order to determine what actions should be taken to make the best use of resources, and which are the most environmentally-friendly.