Consumer attitudes regarding the relationship between food production and health has increased considerably over the past few decades. Greater awareness is attributed to scientific evidence that suggests health-consciousness contributes to a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and coronary heart disease (Basha et al., 2015). Natural health products and organic foods have emerged as a viable means of reducing the negative health effects of existing health conditions and to the risk of future disease (Basha et al., 2015).
One aspect that influences consumer attitudes of large scale food production is perceived threat (Blandon et al., 2007). Although a study done by for the Canadian Federation of Agriculture found that the majority of Canadians are confident that food in Canada is safe, Canadian consumers are concerned about the risk of chronic diseases that can be attributed to food and diet (Blandon et al., 2007). When consumers perceive a threat, and are aware of the existence of health-enhancing products or organic food, they are more willing to accept these products as a coping mechanism (Blandon et al., 2007). Organic food has a positive reputation because they are not treated with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or chemical substances during its production and storage (Basha et al., 2015). Thus, there is the perception that organic food items are “healthier” (Basha et al., 2015). If consumers perceive there is a threat between diet and health, there is greater inclination towards dietary change (Blandon et al., 2007).
Another factor affecting consumer attitudes is the understanding of information pertaining to natural health products. Information regarding health and food products is generally available through labels (Blandon et al., 2007). However, many consumers may ignore this information because of lack of trust to the information that is being made available (Blandon et al., 2007). Some consumers are sceptical about the information provided in nutrition labels, especially when the information is provided by manufacturers (Blandon et al., 2007).
According to Jose Blandon et al.,44 percent of Canadian consumers are sceptical about the information provided in nutrition claims (Blandon et al., 2007). Although rates of scepticism vary depending on the province, the highest rates of scepticism are in British Columbia and the lowest in the Maritime provinces (Blandon et al., 2007). Consumers have the greatest confidence in the information provided by consumer and environmental advocacy groups and are least confident about labels when provided by food manufacturers (Blandon et al., 2007). This has significant consequences on efforts to promote healthy diets on the part of the food industry and on public health campaigns.
The awareness and knowledge regarding the harmful effects of chemicals present in food is increasing among consumers (Basha et al., 2015). Due to this awareness, more consumers are purchasing organic food. Some of the main motivating factors to purchasing organic food include environmental concern, health and lifestyle concern, as well as product quality (Basha et al., 2015).
According to Basha et al., environmental care is one of the central motivational factors toward purchasing organic products (Basha et al., 2015). Scholars have found that organic production causes less harm to the environment. Consumers are getting more environmentally conscious and willing to contribute to protect the environment via any means (Basha et al., 2015).
Product quality refers to monetary value (Basha et al., 2015). On average, an organic consumer is less price sensitive and more concerned over the quality of the food (Basha et al., 2015). For example, according to a study conducted by Yiridoe, Canadian consumers on average are willing to pay a price premium of at least 24% (Yiridoe, 2007). Scholars have found that most consumers prefer organic milk, fruit, and vegetables. Overall, price and quality were found to have more significant relationship than other factors.
Even though many consumers that buy organic items may vouch for its health benefits, economically, the total share of organic food is still small compared with the total food market (Mie et al.,2017). Research has found that apart from a lack of availability of organic products, a lack of trust in and awareness of organic food, and the price premiums of organic are considered major barriers to the development of the organic food market (Mie et al.,2017). Thus, the idea that organic foods solve food production and health issues is questionable.
It is particularly questionable because organic food production methods are not simple to classify. Not only are there a number and varying forms of conventional and organic agricultural systems, but there is also an overlap of these systems (Mie et al.,2017). Furthermore, current research on the role of organic food consumption in human health is limited compared to other health topics. Health studies aiming to identify links between organic food consumption and health are lacking, mainly due to the high costs of conducting such research (Mie et al.,2017). Considering there is minimal scientific evidence regarding the benefits of organic food consumption, most data regarding the benefits of organic food is self-reported which may lead to inaccuracies (Mie et al.,2017). For example, most consumers who regularly buy organic food tend to select more vegetables, fruit, wholegrain products and less meat. They also tend to have healthier dietary patterns than those who do not purchase organic products (Mie et al.,2017). These dietary characteristics are also associated with a decreased risk for mortality of chronic diseases (Mie et al.,2017). Thus, studies on the association between organic and conventional food consumption need to be carefully examined for differences in dietary quality and lifestyle factors.
In order to develop healthy and sustainable food production, production and consumption need to be considered in a cohesive manner. Although there are several factors affecting consumer attitudes, many of these factors are plausible considering chronic diseases are on the rise. Future research should analyze the changes in consumer attitudes towards functional foods and natural health products over time as markets evolve for these products in Canada.