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Amy Brown headshot

Millennials’ Food Choices Means Canned Tuna Stays on Shelves

By Amy Brown

Millennials have been blamed for killing dozens of industries, from banks to beer to real estate (even cereals and napkins). Now they’re accused of killing canned tuna because they can’t be bothered to open a can, and according to an executive for tuna company Starkist in The Wall Street Journal, don’t even own can openers.

That was the last straw (paper, not plastic, please) for Jolie Peters, senior editor at Plan 3000, a socially conscious storytelling platform by and for Millennials and Generation Z. Peters, 26, thinks people are completely missing the story about Millennials and food - and are clueless in a few other areas as well. After all, they are shaking up the finance world with their focus on socially responsible investing.

“The article [in the WSJ] was striking to me because it framed the death of canned tuna in a negative way but there’s definitely some truth to it. Millennials and Gen Z’s are seeking out fresher options,” Peters told TriplePundit.

As the daughter of restaurateurs who grew up eating freshly prepared food, Peters says she has never eaten canned tuna—but not for lack of a can opener.

Leading a food revolution

The real story about Millennials and Gen Z’s and food is a much more positive one, she says. “We’re moving away from canned fish and canned vegetables to fresher farm-to-table ingredients. There are environmental reasons, too, why we are moving away from things that used to be pantry staples.”  

Millennials, who represent nearly one-quarter of the population, are increasingly shifting away from meat and fish in general, with 10 percent of consumers between ages 18 to 29 either vegetarian or vegan.

As for canned tuna’s carbon footprint, there’s some debate. While the Environmental Working Group claims not eating canned tuna saves 6.1 kilograms of CO2 per kilo of canned tuna, a study commissioned by the WWF estimated the carbon footprint of canned tuna to be far lower.

You are what you eat

“Millennials are activists at our core, and food and the environment often overlap,” Peters says. “We want to know where our food is coming from, that it is sourced sustainably. We’re asking questions about the source of our food that people haven’t asked for a very long time.”

Millennials are some of the healthiest eaters of any generation. According to the Organic Trade Association, 52 percent of organic consumers are Millennials and they eat 52 percent more vegetables than their older counterparts. And they’re shifting their diets dramatically, with some 40 percent embracing plant-based diets.

The food industry needs to pay attention to how this important demographic is making food choices. – and many are doing so. For example, Peters says Trader Joe’s is one retailer beloved by Millennials that is “spot on” when it comes to understanding what they want (although Greenpeace ranks Trader Joe’s as just “okay” on its seafood sustainability practices). Others, like the canned tuna companies, may not be getting it.

Appealing to Millennial tastes

“Large corporations and large food companies have a challenge in that they are older and so large. Our demographic is shifting to small food businesses and smaller farms and markets and local chefs and it’s really hard for those corporations that our parents supported so wholeheartedly to reach us,” Peters says.

Genuine, thoughtful efforts to listen to the voices of Millennials and Gen Z’s and their food preferences will be heard, Peters said. “Companies need to find a way to care about issues that really make sense to our generation.”

However, large processed food companies will still struggle in appealing to her age group, Peters says. She is not alone in this attitude—one study says Millennials are twice as likely to distrust large food companies than older generations.

“I’m not sure that any big corporation will really be able to satisfy what we’re looking for as you can’t make up for that demand from our generation for locally grown and produced food,” she says.

Are big food companies listening?

Many of the world’s largest food companies would reply that they are aware of Millennials’ concerns and are responding in kind. Many global food and beverage companies have grown largely in recent years by acquiring smaller, socially-conscious brands and letting them carry on business as usual.

Witness Unilever’s purchase of Ben and Jerry’s almost 20 years ago; Honest Tea has been part of Coca-Cola; Hormel has done the same with Justin’s and Applegate Farms. PepsiCo, meanwhile, has dabbled in projects such as working with smallholder farmers in Ethiopia; three years ago the company said its sustainability efforts reined in $375 million in savings. But as Peters’ concerns suggest, the world’s largest companies have a lot more convincing to do in order to court this enormous, and lucrative, demographic.

Image credit: NeONBRAND/Unsplash

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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