by | December 20, 2019 | Opinion

What are ‘food environments’?

Food environments shape what food we buy and eat.

Food environments are the physical, economic, political and socio-cultural contexts in which people engage with the food system to make their decisions about acquiring, preparing and consuming food.

Food environments are a combination of the ‘spaces’ in which people make decisions about food, and the foods and drinks that are made available, accessible, affordable and desirable in those spaces.

The food environment concept shows us that the choices we make about food are, to a significant degree,  shaped by the contexts within which they are made. Following from that is the recognition that the most effective and equitable way to change food behaviours is to change the structural factors that drive food choice.


Some key definitions of ‘food environment’:


“The collective physical, economic, policy and sociocultural surroundings, opportunities and conditions that influence people’s food and beverage choices and nutritional status.”

Swinburn et al., 2013

High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE)

“Food environment refers to the physical, economic, political and socio-cultural context in which consumers engage with the food system to make their decisions about acquiring, preparing and consuming food.”

“The key elements of the food environment that influence consumer food choices, food acceptability and diets are: physical and economic access to food (proximity and affordability); food promotion, advertising and information; and food quality and safety.”

HLPE, 2017

EU Group of Chief Scientific Advisors

“The food environment is the interface that mediates people’s food acquisition and consumption within the wider food system. It encompasses external dimensions such as the availability, prices, vendor and product properties, and promotional information; and personal dimensions such as the accessibility, affordability, convenience and desirability of food sources and products”

European Commission, Group of Chief Scientific Advisors (2020)

“Today’s food environments exploit people’s biological, psychological, social, and economic vulnerabilities, making it easier for them to eat unhealthy foods.”

The Lancet Series on Obesity (2015)


Food environments and food policy

Creating enabling food environments means ensuring that foods, beverages and meals that contribute to sustainable healthy diets are the most available, affordable, convenient and widely promoted. Such environments make the healthy and sustainable food choice the default choice, while limiting the promotional opportunities for foods associated with unhealthy and unsustainable diets. Such food environments will enable and empower the adoption of healthy, tasty, sustainable eating patterns.

Reshaping food environments is critical for food systems sustainability, a need now recognised at the EU level, most notably by its Chief Scientific Advisors and in the Farm to Fork Strategy.

Creating healthy, sustainable food environments involves implementing policies to reshape incentives across the food chain. Such policies are best conceived in policy packages and should be led by regulatory and fiscal measures as part of a wider policy mix.

The Food Environment Policy Index (Food-EPI) is an ongoing initiative analysing the achievements and gaps in national food policy frameworks. Several European countries and the EU have already been benchmarked on this basis, highlighting significant room for improvement. While at present these analyses focus on nutrition, other food sustainability dimensions can be included in the future.


Such policies can be grouped across seven main types of measures:

7 Policies Dimensions for Healthy Food Environments
  1. Food composition;
  2. Food labelling;
  3. Food promotion;
  4. Food provision & supply;
  5. Food retail;
  6. Food prices;
  7. Food trade & investment.


What progress towards creating empowering food environments in Europe?

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