What Determines What We Eat

Examining the major factors that shape our food choices — culture, cost, health, and more

Last updated: Mar 1st, 2019
What determines what we eat

If hunger and a desire for good nutrition were the only driving factors behind our food choices, we would be a healthy bunch. But we live in a complex world of plenty, with more food than we could eat or even want to eat. We choose foods for many reasons, and according to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation 2011 Food and Health Survey, taste and price are the biggest drivers of Americans' food choices.

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Taste preferences start early in life. In fact, research suggests that our mothers' food choices influence our preferences while we are still in the womb and during breastfeeding. Both amniotic fluid and breast milk take on the flavors of the food the mother eats. This early introduction to different flavors increases the likelihood that infants and children will eat and enjoy the foods they were exposed to very early on. Taste can also be learned later in life. You may have already realized this when a once disliked food became enjoyable after repeated trials.


According to the IFIC Foundation survey, 79 percent of consumers say that cost affects their food and beverage choices. This number is up six percent from the survey one year earlier. Though many people argue that healthful foods are more expensive than junk food, this is rarely the case when comparing cost per nutrient rather than cost per serving of food. For example, a serving of fruit may seem pricey compared to a serving of pretzels, but the fruit is packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and disease-fighting phytochemicals, making it a bargain. Studies show that consumers purchase more healthful foods when the price is lowered. Thus, many consumer advocates and public health officials advocate for price subsidies for fruits and vegetables to put them in the shopping carts and on the plates of more Americans. Likewise, many organizations push for a junk food tax to discourage the purchase of unhealthful foods.


In today's 24/7, fast-paced society, time is a valued commodity. For this reason, consumers desire ready-to-serve and quick-to-prepare foods. Manufacturers have responded and continue to respond with a slew of convenience foods.


Family history, ethnicity, religion and other cultural factors play into our food choices. Some religions, such as Judaism and Islam, have specific dietary laws. Even without such laws, some foods are commonly eaten during religious or cultural events. For example, many Americans with roots in Southern Italy feast on a large seafood Christmas Eve dinner. Think of some of your favorite foods. Chances are good that at least a few of them bring fond memories from childhood, holidays, religious events or have other meaningful connections.

Health & Environmental Concerns

The IFIC Foundation survey noted that 66 percent of Americans consider the healthfulness of foods while shopping. All ages and both genders show concern about the nutritional quality and health effects of food. Many are looking to preserve good health, and others make food selections to treat health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Unfortunately, health-conscious consumers often make poor choices because of confusing food labels and misleading health messages.

In his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think We Eat (Bantam Dell, 2006), eating behavior expert Brian Wansink humorously describes the many ways we eat more than we realize. He argues that on average Americans eat about 30-35 percent more than they think they do. We eat more, his research indicates, when we eat from a large dish, when we dine with a fast eater, if we think the food is healthful, when we serve ourselves with a large spoon and when we have many food choices available.

Other factors influence our food choices as well. Many consumers boycott the manufacturers of foods whose social or political actions are contradictory to their own. Additionally, the increasingly popular green movement has brought the sustainability of foods to the consciousness of many Americans.



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  1. International Food and Information Council Foundation. Press Release: IFIC Foundation Releases 2011 Food and Health Survey. Price Approaches Taste as Top Influencer for Americans When Purchasing Food & Beverages. May 5, 2011. http://www.foodinsight.org/Press-Release/Detail.aspx?topic=Price_Approaches_Taste_as_Top_Influencer_for_Americans_When_Purchasing_Foods_Beverages

  2. Mennella JA, Jagnow CP, Beauchamp GK. Prenatal and postnatal flavor learning by human infants. Pediatrics. 2001 June 1 07(6):E88. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11389286

  3. French SA. Pricing effects on food choices. Journal of Nutrition. 2003 Mar;133(3):841S-843S. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12612165