Dr. Elena Cadel is a communication psychologist and consultant and researcher at the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) Foundation. Specializing in eating behaviors and how to build healthier, more sustainable eating habits and choices, she regularly holds seminars and lectures on food psychology. Since 2004, she has been involved in marketing research and has recently joined the BCFN Foundation, where she is involved in several projects.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk to Elena about her passion for food and sustainability research, and how best to achieve more sustainable eating habits.
Food Tank (FT): How did you become passionate about food and sustainability research?
Elena Cadel (EC): I started my career in the communication field, working part-time for a few marketing research companies in Milan, while I was studying at university. I liked that job, which gave me my first insight on how much people usually waste. With this insight, I took some distance from the world of marketing once I graduated and I started focusing on environmental issues. I then applied for a PhD, and specialized in ecological behaviors with a specific attention to eating behaviors, considering their impact in terms of sustainability.
FT: As a communication psychologist, can you tell us about how food and psychology intersect?
EC: The act of eating does not solely depend on taste, but rather is a socially connoted choice, which draws on various forms, such as health, the sense of culture, social integration and pleasure. In general, much research in psychology has focused on psychopathological aspects of food and eating behaviors, such as Anorexia Nervosa, but you can find many psychological acts in everyday eating. Food—and some foods in particular (e.g. meat)—can serve as a statement of the Self and much psychology is focused on the relationship between pleasure and denial, self-control management and sexual expression. Moreover, on a social level, food can represent religious identity, it can symbolize power, love and caring, but also conflicts with health and pleasure.
FT: How can institutions like the media be used to help promote more sustainable ways of growing and consuming food?
EC: From my experience in marketing research, I know there are many ways we can persuade people to engage in different behaviors. Needless to say, media and social media, in particular, are powerful tools to help promote more sustainable food consumption. The key to success is proposing attainable objectives within specific time frames. If the final goal requires too great a change, then you can break down the objective in simple and clear steps to be achieved within a reasonable time. Once people interiorize or achieve the first step, the higher step is more likely to be achieved. As an example, rather than asking someone to eat more sustainably it is better to list a number of specific actions that would make it possible. Once the goal is achieved, it is very important to continue the same strategy until the desired behavior becomes a stable habit.
FT: Could you tell us about a research project you are working on as a BCFN researcher?
EC: Since January, I am committed to finding an effective way to translate research into everyday language and improve the communications area of the BCFN Foundation. In a sense, this is for me fishing back into my pristine college roots, which are essentially rooted in communication strategies, now empowered by my knowledge about the food system. In particular, I have been deeply involved in the promotion of the Media Award, which is an international recognition intended to reward excellence in journalism and give visibility to stories and contributions about dietary sustainability.
FT: What issues relating to food do you think are the most pressing? In your opinion what are ways it can it be solved?
EC: Globally, the present food system is facing several problems which range from food waste, unsustainability, and malnutrition (over/under-nutrition). Put simply, the main problem in developing Countries may still sit at the beginning of the food chain (e.g., stocking and delivery to market), whereas in high-income countries, we have a problem in balancing food offer (e.g., there is too much food and too much variety on the market shelves, which translates into unsold and dumped goods). There are many solutions that need to be implemented at both the political and individual level. As a psychologist, I know that there are effective ways to improve individual behaviors, which, in the end, are the most effective tools to focus purchasing habits, reduce food waste, and ultimately support more sustainable agricultural techniques. Needless to say, campaigns aimed at changing and encouraging people’s behaviors need to be backed by clear political decisions and appropriate funding.