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A new study published in Environmental Research Letters uses online social media data as a data source in identifying consumption and food patterns. The depth and breadth of data from sources like Facebook are now complementing traditional studies on consumption behaviors.

An International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) led study that tabulated data on environmental lifestyles and vegetarianism among users. IIASA researcher Sibel Eker said of the study, “We were interested in finding out if we could use the data available on the social media platform Facebook to quantify the level of interest in sustainable diets, such as vegetarianism, in different countries around the world and to determine whether their online activity actually represents a real-life interest in vegetarianism and consumption patterns. In addition, we wanted to see what other factors such as education level, age, gender, or the GDP per capita, play a role in determining people’s interest in sustainable diets in different countries.”

Of the 1.9 billion people in 131 countries that were studied using Facebook marketing’s API data, 210 million showed an interest in a vegetarian diet. The authors found that interest in vegetarian diets correlated with reduced meat consumption in countries.

“Our study shows that online social media data can indeed be useful to analyze and estimate food consumption trends. While the importance of education, income, and gender was previously known based on local studies, we ranked them for the first time on a global scale,” says Eker. “Policies that are designed to stimulate adoption of sustainable diets, especially communication policies, should take the social heterogeneity and existing tendencies—which could be low hanging fruit—into account. Heterogeneity across countries also plays an important role, and studies like ours help to understand international differences and to design local customized policies.”

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