Knowledge for better food systems

Pursuing a low meat diet to improve both health and sustainability: How can we use the frames that shape our meals?

Image: Jeremy Noble, Roast, Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

In this paper, the authors conducted a review of numerous studies to examine the content, advantages and limitations of a frame-based approach to assist consumers in reducing their intake of conventional meat (e.g. eating less meat or different meat, such as organic or certified for animal welfare or environmental impact). Particularly, they want to evaluate whether behaviour can be shifted by creating new frames and to identify frames that can bridge a transition by highlighting ‘push’ factors away from routine meat eating, or ‘pull’ factors towards encouraging the consumption of alternatives.

In this study, the term ‘frames’ refers to mental knowledge structures that enable organised ways of perceiving, thinking, communicating and persuading. Each frame is based on a shared cultural background of experiences, beliefs and practices and can be created by or reflected in the language or through non-verbal perceptions. Conceptualisations of meat-related practice, for example, include the association between savoury dishes and proteins, the structure of meals and dishes, the cyclic pattern of meals, and distinctions made between daily foods and luxury foods. Framing also encompasses abstract conceptualisations, such as symbolic and cultural meanings. It enables an individual to communicate meaningfully with others who have more or less the same frames, in a process that is guided by the larger frame of the social context, such as a meal-time conversation. The ‘hidden’ role of frames also includes ‘taken for granted’ frames that are ‘built-in’ into daily practices, such as family meals.

Frames are flexible and context-dependent. Their flexibility can help an individual to bridge the gap between knowing and doing, which can foster transitions. For instance, choice frames provide food-buying consumers with focal goals, which determine their choice, and background goals, such as reducing environmental impacts, which relates to choice evaluations. Likewise, frame interactions may hamper or facilitate diet changes (a ‘healthy eating’ frame may interact with a gender frame in such a way that traditionally ‘masculine’ men perceive healthy eating recommendations as ‘feminine’ ways of eating). In addition, a choice can be framed in a way that highlights the notion of an opportunity (the chance to have a delicious dish) or an avoidable risk (the possibility of getting bad food). Hence, frames may highlight the ‘pull’ of an opportunity or the ‘push’ away from an avoidable risk, which can motivate an individual to behave in a certain manner. Transitions require an overlap between the frames of the change agents and the frames the members of the target group, and the need for a larger frame that provides context for the communication. Critical success factors in effective communication and persuasion are:

  1. The credibility (in relation to reliability of the communication sources and fit between the reality and the frame) and
  2. The salience of the frames in the perception of the target community (the perceived importance of the issue, the cultural relevance of the frames' content, and the congruence between the frames and the everyday experiences of the target).

The main problem the authors want to address is the lack of consumer awareness of the impacts of meat consumption on the environment and their reluctance to reduce their meat intake. In their review, they concluded that science-based health and sustainability arguments do not sufficiently reach consumers or are too difficult for them to comprehend. Additional complicating factors are the prevailing market conditions (for example, many consumers seem to be disconnected from the sources of their food and do not explicitly consider the animal origin of meat). To address these problems, the paper argues that it is crucial to develop bridging frames that work as push and pull factors:

  1. Pull factor: shift from animal to plant protein intake by trying more plant-based protein dishes
  2. Push factor: shift in types of meat consumed by trying extensively produced meat in moderate amounts

They acknowledge that there is no empirical literature to date that specifically addresses these change initiatives. Therefore, they use prior research on meat consumption to shed more light on what needs to be done to further develop these bridging frames. The shift from animal to plant protein intake may be initiated by frames that highlight push factors away from routine meat eating, such as reasons for dissatisfaction with the status quo, or pull factors, which encourage the consumption of alternatives. The same applies to the shift from conventional meat to extensively produced meat.

A potential limitation of a frame-based approach is that it requires much attention to detail and context, which may range from households to regional cuisines, market-related conditions and wider cultural changes.

 

Abstract

This paper adds to the food, health and sustainability literature by examining the content, merits, and limitations of a frame-based approach to assist consumers on the path to a healthy and sustainable diet, focusing on reducing conventional meat consumption. The paper combined literature on frames with literature on meat consumption. It showed that meat eating was connected to the frames that guide consumer choices through sensory-based associations (savory, satisfying) and conceptual interpretations of meals and social situations. It also showed that the science-based health and sustainability arguments in favor of a diet change do not sufficiently reach consumers or are too difficult for them to comprehend. To reach consumers, therefore, it is crucial to develop bridging frames that work as push factors away from routine meat eating, or pull factors that encourage the consumption of primarily plant-based protein and special meat types. These frames (recipes, point-of-sale information) should build on the familiar culinary principles of variety, balance, and moderation, offer a moderate amount of novelty, and enable consumers to make positive sensory associations and coherent interpretations of healthy and sustainable protein dishes. A potential limitation of a frame-based approach is that it requires much attention to detail and context.

 

Reference

de Boer, J. and Aiking, H., 2017. Pursuing a low meat diet to improve both health and sustainability: How can we use the frames that shape our meals? Ecological Economics, 142, pp.238-248.

Read the full paper here. See also the Foodsource chapter What can be done to shift eating patterns in healthier, more sustainable directions?

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