Food Sustainability Knowledge and Its Relationship with Dietary Habits of College Students

Research Article

Austin J Nutri Food Sci. 2017; 5(2): 1089.

Food Sustainability Knowledge and Its Relationship with Dietary Habits of College Students

Torabian-Riasati S¹*, Lippman SR¹, Nisnevich Y¹ and Plunkett SW²

¹Department of Family and Consumer Science at California State University, Northridge

²Department of Psychology at California State University, Northridge

*Corresponding author: Setareh Torabian-Riasati, Department of Family and Consumer Science, California State University, Northridge, 18111 Nordh off Street, CA 91330-8255, Northridge

Received: September 22, 2017; Accepted: October 30, 2017; Published: November 06, 2017


Consumers have power to support food sustainability through dietary choices, but research on how knowledge affects behavior is limited. College students are a significant segment of consumers. Self-report data were collected from a convenience sample of 230 undergraduate students in California. Sustainability knowledge was low. Nutrition and health students had significantly more knowledge than other majors. A significant positive correlation was found between sustainability knowledge and attitudes with probability of supporting a diet that reduces meat/dairy, preference for organic foods, and willingness to pay more for sustainable foods. Thus, knowledge may influence attitudes and dietary behavior of college students.

Keywords: Food; Sustainability; Nutrition; Family and consumer science education


In the setting of population growth, rising obesity levels, climate change, and food system related environmental degradation, ‘food sustainability’ has become a critical issue impacting agricultural, environmental, and social sciences as well as public health nutrition [1]. The current food industry relies heavily on fossil fuels, depletes non-renewable natural resources (e.g., water), and generates green house gases that contribute to global warming [2,3]. Sustainability of the food system is further threatened by general overconsumption and excessive intake of meat and dairy products, two dietary habits that are associated with negative health consequences as well [4,5].

This certainly makes sustainability of increasing relevance to the consumer. Consumer dietary practices and purchasing behaviors indirectly support farming methods, nutritional standards, and environmental practices [6], and as such, food choice can have a major impact on food production [7,8].

College students represent a generation with increasing awareness of sustainability who will act as future leaders, decision-makers, and influencers [9]. As consumers, they are forming their personal identities, beliefs, and values that will carry them into adulthood [10]. Universities play a pivotal role in developing potential social competencies, communications skills, and community relations, thus sustainability should be included throughout college coursework in order to initiate knowledge, transform behaviors, and motivate lifelong habits.

Several studies have looked at the relationship between consumer behaviors and attitudes towards sustainable products, but the research on how these relate to knowledge is limited. Research has shown that education facilitates a higher degree of understanding of the concept of sustainability, which in turn makes it easier for consumers to convert motivation into actual behavior [11]. Because sustainability is an abstract concept, it is likely to represent several different meanings, and therefore attitudes towards sustainable practices may vary greatly based on one’s own interpretation [12]. These distinctions make knowledge key when designing messages to communicate sustainability.

Review of literature

Food sustainability integrates economic, social, and environmental concerns, and throughout the literature, several authors agree that (1) a shift in dietary habits is required and (2) better dietary health and better environmental quality generally go hand-in-hand [5,13,14]. Sustainable food consumption covers a wide variety of topics, including the environment, animal welfare, and fair trade [12]. It applies to awareness about local, seasonal, and organic foods [15], and may also take into consideration ‘food-miles,’ how far food travels between its production and the final consumer [3], or a preference towards ‘eco-labels,’ voluntary identifiers that represent ecological or ethical criteria [16]. These issues have all been examined, and are generally favored for making efficient use of natural resources and for being less degrading to the environment [17].

Dietary shifts towards local produce as well as the decrease of meat and dairy are examples of well-researched sustainable diets that have a lower environmental impact and promote health [3,18]. Modern diets, characterized by over consumption, or excessive intake of meat and dairy, and are estimated to have five times the environmental impact compared to a dietary pattern of organically-produced foods or a plant-based diet [19]. This is due to meat and dairy production systems that are both resource-intensive, using large amounts of land, water, and energy, and plant-based diets by comparison, are found to be less taxing on the environment [2,7,20]. As a result, researchers recommend that total dietary elimination or even reduction of meat and dairy foods would have the greatest impact on reducing the environmental impact of the food system, however this dietary shift has nutritional, cultural, and economic implications and will require social acceptance as a dietary norm [5,21].

Attitudes towards sustainable practices as predictors of behavior have been studied, and it has been observed that a positive attitude does not always result in the desired behavioral intention. According to Vermeir and Verbeke [10,22], the attitude/behavior gap exists due to factors that interfere with the decision making process such as social influences and perceived effectiveness of the behavior. In addition, conversion of motivation to food choice and consumption is not exact because product features such as price, brand, quantity, and use-by-date and nutrition information compete to influence behavior [11].

In an effort to promote sustainable consumption, retailers and marketers have increased food supply transparency, availability of organic products, or use of eco-labels, however, research indicates that the information provided remains inadequate [23]. Grunert [8] explains, even if consumers are motivated to support sustainability, potential communication barriers may prevent them from using the information to make sustainable choices. This might be due to inadequate background information, and thus educating consumers on benefits of sustainable practices as well as the environmental affect of food choice have been considered paramount to influence behavior and purchasing decisions [22].

Food sustainability is complex and multi-faceted, encompassing nutrition, environmental impacts, cultural preferences, safety, and access; and while consumers appear motivated to make positive choices, their understanding is lacking. In order to expand our knowledge on the topic, research is required to fill in the gap between knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. This cross-sectional study aims to do so by analyzing (1) what is the existing food sustainability knowledge level amongst college students attending a comprehensive university in Southern California; (2) how is food sustainability knowledge related to socio-demographic variables (i.e., age, gender, marital status, and field of study); (3) how is food sustainability knowledge related to students’ attitudes towards sustainable practices; (4) does food sustainability knowledge affect usual dietary practices; (5) does food sustainability knowledge affect usual shopping preferences; and (6) do diet-related health concerns affect knowledge.



After receiving approval from the university institutional review board, subjects were recruited from four upper-division classes during a 2009 regular semester schedule. The courses included (1) a business course required of all business, information systems, and accounting majors, (2) a freshmen level kinesiology course, (3) and two sections of an upper-division, general education, Family and Consumer Science course. All participants were informed of the purpose of the research, and participated through voluntary recruitment. The survey was distributed to subjects at the beginning of their normal class time, and they were allowed to complete it without time constraints. The usual survey time lasted approximately 15 minutes. All surveys were anonymous.

Sample characteristics

Data were collected from 230 participants (18-52 years old, M = 23.3, SD = 5.0). Most participants (i.e., 63.9%) were women with 36.1% men. The participants’ ethnic background follows: 32.6% Latino, 28.7% White, 11.7% Asian, 7.4% African American, and 19.1% mixed or other. The marital status follows: 62.6% single, 3.0% divorced, 6.1% married, 27.0% in a committed relationship, and 1.3% other. Participants reported college majors as follows: 23.0% business, 32.2% kinesiology, 31.7% social sciences, and 13.1% nutrition or health related majors. Also, 3.9% reported they adhere to a vegetarian diet, and 11% reported they grow their own produce.


The survey was developed by the researchers and piloted in a diverse population (n = 7). After the pilot, the survey was revised to eliminate any questions deemed too complicated. The final survey consisted of 76 items.

Twelve multiple-choice questions assessed food sustainability knowledge. Students were asked to describe food sustainability, identify the most sustainable food practices, evaluate use of fossil fuels in the food industry, compare plant and animal protein production, identify benefits of a plant based diet, recognize elements of a sustainable diet, and show awareness of food miles, carbon dioxide emissions, pesticide use and fuel consumption. Responses were coded as follows: 1 = correct, 0 = incorrect or “do not know.”

Dietary preference towards sustainable foods and usual eating habits were assessed with 12 questions. Participants were provided with a “What is a Serving?” handout to support accurate estimates of usual intake. A single item assessed the practice of substituting meat with vegetarian products. Responses were coded as follows: 0 = never, 1 = sometimes, 2 = frequently, and 3 = very frequently. Food frequency questions were used to assess sustainability of usual intake (i.e., less red meat and more fresh fruits and vegetables). Responses were coded as follows: 1 = I do not eat this food, 2 = 1-3 servings per week, 3 = 4-7 servings per week, 4 = 8-11 servings per week and 5 = more than 12 servings per week.

Participants’ attitudes towards sustainable food practices was assessed as the average response to 7 questions in which students were asked how much they agree with the following statements: Sustainability is the major factor in your food choices; Most of the negative dietary impact on the environment from the average person in the US comes from high meat consumption; US commercial livestock production results in increased greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming; Beef production requires the most amount of land and water; A vegetarian diet is more ecologically sustainable to produce than a meat based diet; The use of pesticides in modern agriculture can contaminate water and air; and Supplementing a vegetarian diet with a small amount of poultry and fish is a sustainable dietary practice. The results were coded as follows: 0 = never, 1 = sometimes, 2 = frequently, and 3 = very frequently.

Diet related health concerns were addressed in three questions that asked how often students check nutritional information when making purchases, and how often they avoid purchasing products that contain high-fructose corn syrup or trans fats.

Additional lifestyle factors were assessed in five questions to evaluate willingness to pay additional costs for sustainable foods as well as other purchasing habits and consumption behaviors. Lastly, the survey assessed demographic variables (e.g., gender, age, health status, ethnicity, marital status, accommodations, and college major).

Statistical analyses

Data analysis was conducted using Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS), version 16.0 for Macintosh. Significance was determined at p < .05. Bivariate correlations were conducted to determine the strength and direction of the relationship between variables. T-tests and one-way ANOVA tests (with Turkey HSD post hoc tests) were performed to calculate any significant difference between groups. Descriptive statistics were used to evaluate students’ knowledge about food sustainability.


Knowledge of food sustainability

Descriptive statistics were used to analyze a series of 12 questions that determined students’ food sustainability knowledge (Table 1). Results demonstrated that students possessed some information on the topic, but overall knowledge was low as indicated by the percent of correct responses (Table 2).