Young adults are increasingly vocal in the climate change movement. They have made great progress in championing the climate cause, however there is one environmental area where youth have an opportunity for even greater impact. That’s in what they eat.  

From reviewing existing evidence and conducting our own data analyses in the United Kingdom and United States, WRI found that, despite ranking environmentally friendly diets as an important priority, young consumers seem to be purchasing more animal-based foods than older people. 

Young People’s Diets Could Serve Up Bigger Impact in the Climate Change Fight

GHG emissions from animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. Against this backdrop, 93% of young adults surveyed (18 to 23 years) in the U.S. said environmental protection and health characteristics were major influences on their decisions to purchase sustainable food. And in the U.K., a higher percentage of youth, compared to older people, now identify as either vegetarian or vegan and see meat-free diets as the aspirational choice.  

But, despite this, the young have inherited conventional food environments. This means that when we look at the data on actual eating and food shopping habits of young people, a more nuanced picture emerges.  

Here are three key takeaways from the data on youth dietary habits: 

1)  Consumption of meat has remained static, but choices have changed.  

Young adult’s (20 to 34 years) consumption of processed or “deli” meat has, in fact, remained static over time, according to data collected from 1999 to 2016 as part of the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which assesses the eating habits of 5,000 citizens annually. However, there are shifts in other kinds of meat that young people are choosing — namely, significantly less unprocessed red meat and more poultry, a move that confers environmental benefit but is less desirable than replacing red meat with entirely plant-based sources of protein. 

2) Young adults are eating more meat than older people.  

A similar dataset from the U.K. — the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS), which tracks a sample of around 1,000 citizens per year — also paints a mixed picture regarding young adult’s food choices. Analyses of dietary data between 2008-2012 show that, while younger people (19 to 30 years) are eating less red and processed meat per 1000 calories (kcal) of food consumed than those aged 46-60 years, they eat more than the oldest age group surveyed (65 years and older).  

To update this finding and draw comparisons with U.S. data, WRI ran a similar analysis for the most recent year of the NDNS survey available — 2016 to 2017. Here, we found that the same trends hold —  that is, it’s the old, rather than the young, who are eating the least meat.  

As in the U.S., we see the same shift in preferences toward more white meat in those under 34 years in the U.K. This change would be somewhat praiseworthy from an environmental perspective if younger people were directly replacing red meat with white meat in their diets. However, this is not happening in the U.K. Instead, we see more white meat being eaten by people under 34 years old, while red meat consumption remains level across all age groups, meaning more meat is being eaten overall by younger compared to older generations.  

Comparable dietary datasets from both Mexico and Canada yet again reveal a similar pattern. For example, while young people in Canada are just as likely as older age groups to eat meat, young people in Mexico (18-24 years) are, in fact, more likely to consume any kind of meat than those aged 75+ years.  

3) In some supermarkets, youth are purchasing more meat than any other age group. 

While media attention around the connection between food and climate has increased in recent years, further data analysis suggests this coverage hasn’t yet succeeded in encouraging more sustainable food choices. 

For example, data collected from the U.K.’s second-largest supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s — which brings together purchase data from shoppers of different age groups between 2017 and 2020 (see Appendix A for analysis methods) — shows the disconnect between common statements of intention by young people and actual food choices of this group.”  

Despite a fall in meat, fish and poultry sales volume of 7% for the chain as a whole, younger shoppers (18-24 years) showed a 32% increase in sales volume of this category over the period studied. 

Considering beef purchases specifically — the type of meat with the greatest climate impact — we see the largest percentage increase in total monthly sales volume in Sainsbury’s shoppers are those aged 18-24 years, up by 35% between 2017 and 2020. This compares to a relative decrease in beef purchases in all older age groups.  

Sainsbury’s also analyzed the average number of meat, fish and poultry products bought per customer per week, to ensure this pattern wasn’t just due to more younger shoppers visiting the chain. Here, we see a general increase in the number of units bought per customer across all age groups, but the most marked rise in younger customers. So, while total sales volume of meat, fish and poultry products have declined, younger customers are bucking this trend and buying more. 

Why is There a Disconnect Between Youth Dietary Habits and their Environmental Values?  

Behavioral science has shown that, more than information campaigns, dining and retail environments are a big influence on what a person chooses to buy or eat. We may go into a grocery store planning to buy only healthy or sustainable food, but what we end up putting in our cart is driven much more by habit, familiarity or displays in the store. Our automatic brain takes the lead, and we make choices that don’t always align with our higher values. 

Responsible retailers and food service providers have realized this fact and started to do things differently. Using menu language that describes plant-based dishes in mouth-watering terms is one way food businesses can increase the uptake of sustainable dishes. Another is by swapping some meat for plants in popular dishes, like the beef and mushroom blended burger.   

But a lot more work still needs to be done to create better dining and shopping environments — the kind that empower young adults to make choices that align with their values. In particular, curtailing meat-heavy advertising on social media and in-store, offering a far greater number of tasty plant-based options, and ensuring that these are the convenient and affordable choice.  

If the eating habits of the young can catch up to their interest in sustainable food, the world stands a great chance at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the planet for generations to come. But a lot of work remains. Business and policy leaders have to step up to support all of us — especially young adults — to help turn intentions into a sustainable food future. 


Appendix A. Sainsbury’s Data Analysis Methods 

Aggregated data on purchase behaviour, specific to all chilled, raw products of a certain subcategory of meat product (i.e., chilled raw chicken, beef, pork, lamb, and fish), were analyzed by Sainsbury’s. This data was split out over time (aggregating a 12-month moving average, to standardize for seasonal variation, and over 3-month increments between July 2017 and March 2020, resulting in 8 annual averages) and by age group (groups being 18 to 24 years old, 25 to 34, 35 to 44, 45 to 54, 55 to 64, 65 to 74, and 75 and over; under 18 year-olds were excluded due to an insufficient sample size). 

Purchase behaviour data was collected by Nectar, a subsidiary of Sainsbury’s Supermarkets PLC, who run the Nectar loyalty scheme for Sainsbury’s. Data was captured (using Nectar’s and Sainsbury’s internal tools and processes) for any transaction made with Sainsbury’s (i.e., both in-store or online sales) where a Nectar card was associated with the transition (i.e., a Nectar member’s Nectar card had been swiped during or before payment; using purchase behavior data specific to Nectar members was necessary so that age data could be paired with transaction data); the data shared consists of a specific analysis of a subset of this data. Two specific metrics were provided by which to understand purchase behavior: total sales volume and units per customer. Note that all data shared was indexed against that of the initial time period (i.e., Q3 2017 to end of Q2 2018) to protect this commercially sensitive information.