What does Generation Z – currently aged between 18-24 years – want from a healthy food system?
EIT Food, part of EU body the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), has commissioned a survey of over 2,000 Europeans born between 1995/96 and 2009/10 to find out.
Why focus on Gen Z?
The European Commission's Farm to Fork strategy acknowledges that transitioning to a better food system will not happen without a shift in people’s diets.
But in order for the younger generations to become actively engaged with the transformation of the food system – rather than remain ‘passive’ and ‘often reluctant followers’ – they need opportunities for collaboration, according to Saskia Nuitjen, Director of Communications and Public Engagement at EIT Food.
“This needs to be with not only industry and other players involved in food production, but also in the design of new solutions to improve the food system,” she told FoodNavigator.
“Moreover, through their behaviour and choices, young consumers are key for the uptake of new solutions, products, services and business models – and even policies – which will need to become mainstream in the food system.”
Ultimately, Nuitjen argues that to realise the ‘ambitious targets’ of the Farm to Fork strategy, policymakers, businesses and academics must focus on the needs of young consumers, their motivations and barriers to change, as well as how innovation can support them in becoming ‘active changemakers’.
“Having an understanding of what young people want will give the agri-food industry the valuable insight it needs to properly address the requirements for this consumer group.”
‘An overlooked generation’
Another reason for increased attention on younger generations, and in particular Gen Z, is due to inequalities prevalent within this age group.
According to the European Parliamentary Research Service, Generation Z are the most at risk of poverty. The same research suggests that this generation of young people born after 1995/96 are among the most active citizens on social and environmental issues.
However, it will be 15 years before Gen Z, along with the Millennials born between 1981 and 1995/96, form for majority of the voting age population across the EU. This means, Nuitjen told this publication, that close to 15 years must lapse before their views, expectations, and attitudes make up the majority of those taken into consideration when designing policies.
“Because of this, the views of Gen Z are being overlooked in comparison to older generations are better represented through traditional structures, such as voting. That is why it is important for their voice to be heard in other ways.”
The first step, according to Nuijten, is to involve younger generations in the changes we need to make to the food system to understand what they want, need and expect from it.
“That is why EIT Food commissioned new research with 18-24 years olds across Europe, to better understand how Gen Z view and interact with healthy food.”
Healthy food for physical and mental health
The survey, conducted by Opinium, surveyed Gen Z consumers across the UK, France, Germany, Poland and Spain.
According to EIT Food, findings ‘clearly demonstrate’ a generation ‘keenly’ interested, knowledgeable, and engaged when it comes to their eating habits, and especially how this links to their wellbeing and mental health.
A total of 72% of Gen Z said they see healthy eating as an integral part of their physical and mental health, with 71% making an effort to eat healthy food whilst at home.
Over half of all 18-24 year olds (52%) surveyed track their food consumption, with a majority of those focusing on counting calories, followed by tracking macronutrients.
Amongst the ‘healthiest’ options for food, Gen-Zers said they prefer whole, organic and plant-based foods, with 79% considering processed foods unhealthy. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that two thirds (67%) say healthy food is fashionable at the moment.
Want to eat healthy, but don’t know how?
While the survey results indicate Gen Z Europeans are interested and engaged in healthy eating, they also suggest young people aren’t getting the support they need to follow healthy diets.
Three-quarters of respondents said they need clearer advice on how to eat a healthy, balanced diet, with 65% saying they didn’t get enough education on how to eat healthily while at school.
“Having a trusted, reliable source of information was identified as being vital by many respondents, with just under two thirds (61%) saying it can be hard to know how to eat healthily as there is so much conflicting advice,” noted EIT Food.
Young people are, however, taking ‘things into their own hands’, with 67% saying they turn to social media, such as TikTok or Instagram, for healthy food and recipe ideas. Over half said they rely on social media or on their friends for advice on eating healthily.
How health advice is rolled out by the government is of particular importance. The majority of young people (55%) are concerned that printing calorie counts on food labels, for example, can be detrimental to people’s mental health.
Rather, 77% said young people need better advice on the link between what they eat and their mental health.
‘Food brands need to be more transparent’
So how can the younger generation be best encouraged to eat healthily?
According to the survey, 43% of Gen Zers believe discounted or subsidised heathy food is the most impactful option. This aligns with two-thirds’ (67%) of participants who think healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food.
Having access to healthier food was also key for 37% of respondents, whether that be via online delivery services or at school, college and university.
“This is being driven by a lack of existing options, with seven in 10 young people (73%) finding it difficult to eat healthily while on the go, or at their place of education or work,” noted EIT Food.
Gen Z cannot, and does not, expect to be solely responsible for promoting healthy eating habits across Europe, the report continued. Instead, four in 10 young people think the EU should be responsible for ensuring food is healthy across the bloc, closely followed by consumers (37%), farmers or food manufacturers (36% respectively), and national governments (35%).
Findings also suggest Gen Z is asking more of brands, with 78% of respondents wanting clearer information on food labels detailing not just its ingredients, but how the food is processed. Three-quarters said food brands need to be more transparent with consumers about ingredients and processes.
In response to its findings, EIT Food is launching an initiative titled ‘Our Food, Our Food System’, which will recruit 10 young ‘FutureFoodMakers’ to spearhead a call for change in the food sector to improve access to healthy, sustainable and affordable food, EIT Food Director of Communications and Public Engagement Saskia Nuijten explained.
“As Europe’s leading food innovation community, we believe it is overdue to pay attention to the future food generation.”
It is not the first time EIT Food has done work with generation-specific consumers, having brought together senior consumers aged 65+ with retailers, producers and start-ups to produce new food products – four of which were introduced to the market in 2020.