Principal Investigator: Professor Jeffrey Brunstrom, University of Bristol

In the UK, food consumed out of the home accounts for a significant proportion of the impact of diet on health and the environment. For example, 42% of workers eat at a canteen and seven million school lunches are served daily. In response, we will deliver a simple tool that:

  • generates a 15-30% reduction in both the carbon footprint of meals and their sugar, fat and salt content
  • can be implemented without compromising food acceptability and without consumers even being aware that changes have been made
  • will be ready for immediate application at a city-wide level and beyond.

We recognise the bold nature of these claims. However, they are grounded on our modelling of food choices in a real-world context – a university catered hall of residence. Our approach exploits a simple, yet previously overlooked, principle.

In any canteen setting where menu options rotate on a fixed-term basis, consumers eat only one meal per day. As such, the longer-term (weekly/yearly) nutritional and environmental performance of an establishment will depend on the combination of options that happen to be served on the same day.

Our findings confirm that we can achieve marked improvements in diet merely by reorganising menu options in a way that increases within-day competition between undesirable meals. In practical terms this is a multidimensional problem involving the minimisation of salt, sugar, fat and carbon footprint. However, well-established techniques in computational mathematics can address these challenges.

To achieve these ambitious targets, this project (Sustainable Nutrition, Environment and Agriculture, without Consumer Knowledge (SNEAK)) brings together a unique combination of expertise in:

  • behavioural psychology
  • agricultural and environmental modelling (integrating social and natural sciences)
  • commercial catering.

With this ‘action-focused research,’ we will demonstrate direct application in a university hall of residence (actual effects on diet and carbon footprint will be measured). Building on this, we will produce an online platform for non-experts to transform other catering services. We will demonstrate the real-world benefits of our approach by collecting canteen recipe data from schools across Bristol. We will then partner with an advisory team (Bristol City Council and Bristol Food Network) to develop a strategy for city-wide rollout in schools. Importantly, we will consult with partners from the Born in Bradford Study, who have expertise in dietary interventions for children in multiethnic and socially deprived areas.

We will also broaden the application of our methods to a commercial food outlet. Recognising the potential of this idea, the University of Bristol has agreed to support the project by developing the UK’s first ‘Consumer Lab’ – a public-facing facility in which lunchtime food offerings can be experimentally manipulated. This is unique, because it combines ecological validity (consumers make actual purchases) with the opportunity to manipulate menu offerings on any given day. Here, we will monitor the diet quality and carbon footprint of purchases, and then show how both can be improved. Again, to develop practical next steps for application, we have co-designed a detailed plan for consulting with local food outlets (for example, cafés and takeaways).

Finally, in addition to looking at ways to reduce risk, we have built-in opportunities to capitalise on ‘high risk (high gain) endeavours.’ We plan to show how our computational approach can return significant health and environmental benefits, alongside a reduction in food costs in places like schools and care homes, and even an increase in profit at outlets such as cafés and takeaways.