The present research provided detailed and up-to-date knowledge on how the relative importance of food motives varies across different segments of the population. Age and household income occurred as the sociodemographic factors that showed the strongest associations with certain food motives: young adults placed greater emphasis on convenience and mood control than middle-aged and older adults, while the salience of cheapness decreased with increasing household income. Albeit somewhat weaker in strength, we also detected several other links between sociodemographic characteristics, special diets and individuals’ motive priorities as discussed in the following paragraphs.
In accordance with a few previous studies [9, 11], age emerged as a central determinant of motives for food selection. Overall, our findings are consistent with the suggestion  that older individuals may value more “long-term-oriented” motives (health, weight control, natural content, ethical concern), while younger people may emphasize more “short-term-oriented” motives (mood, sensory appeal, price, convenience). The emergence of diverse health problems and the phase of the life course, such as having children and more stabilized life and financial situation, are likely to contribute to more long-term and health-conscious orientation in middle-aged and older adults. The observation that considerations related to mood control (e.g. helps me cope with stress) were most salient to 18–29-year-olds could also reflect the increased rates of frequent psychological distress in Finnish young adults  and the impact of distress in those prone to emotional eating . Even though younger people often report being more environmentally concerned than older people , the present and previous studies [9, 15] applying the FCQ have found a positive association between age and ethical concern motive. However, one potential explanation for this discrepancy is that the ethical concern dimension contained only one item (“is packaged in an environmentally friendly way”) assessing wider environmental aspects.
Gender differences in the examined food motives were substantially more pronounced in the absolute than in the relative terms; a phenomenon that was also observed in a population-based study of Finnish working-age adults . Consistent with earlier studies [9, 11, 12, 14, 15] analysing gender differences in the absolute terms, we found that women rated the absolute importance of health, ethical concern, natural content, mood, sensory appeal, convenience and weight control as higher than men. This probably reflects that women still have the main responsibility for grocery shopping and cooking in many households  and are exposed to stricter sociocultural norms for body shape  with both phenomena leading to greater involvement and preoccupation with food in females. In contrast, gender differences in the relative importance of motives were mostly weak in line with the fact that relative motives do not capture individual differences in the level of involvement with food . Nonetheless, a novel and potentially important observation was that men rated the relative importance of price-value, familiarity and price-cheap as higher than women; a pattern reflecting a more practical motivational orientation in males.
Price, familiarity and health emerged as the motive dimensions that most notably differentiated between education and household income categories: participants with higher SEP valued more healthiness and less cheapness and familiarity in their daily food selection compared to lower-SEP participants. A similar pattern has also been reported in earlier studies [12, 16,17,18,19,20], but a unique finding in our study was that the price item (“is good value for money”) depicting the concept of worth did not distinguish between SEP categories. Food being good value for money actually emerged as the most important motive (in both absolute and relative terms) in all education and household income groups, which suggests that the impact of the price-value considerations on food selection is dominant and widespread. It is yet possible that there are systematic SEP differences in what kind of foods and portion sizes fulfill the criteria of being good value for money; a topic to be addressed in future studies. We further observed that the positive relationship between education and health motive was more prominent than the one involving household income. Albeit education and income are closely intertwined, they may influence the importance of health considerations via separate pathways. On the one hand, spending longer time in the educational system may improve nutrition and food literacy as well as socialize individuals to adopt healthy dietary patterns . On the other hand, affluent individuals and households possess greater financial freedom to take the health aspects into account given that foods of higher nutritional quality have been demonstrated to cost more per calorie . Besides these separate pathways, the stronger link between education and health motive can also reflect the fact that both of them were measured at the individual level, while income was assessed at the household level.
Higher education and household income were both linked to a lower salience of familiarity in daily food selection (albeit education again with a stronger effect size), and these associations are probably driven by diverse mechanisms. Lower economic resources may act as a barrier for eating unfamiliar foods: experimenting with new foods and dishes often involves a risk of waste that less affluent individuals cannot afford to take . The mechanisms of social distinction  may also play a role: individuals with higher SEP can be more willing to incorporate new foods in their diets because it provides one medium to set themselves apart from the other SEP groups [38, 39]. It has indeed been proposed that health-related lifestyle has become increasingly important source of social distinction in the present prosperous societies where more people can afford various consumer goods .
There is rather little previous evidence on whether motives for food selection differ by marital status, living situation and/or having children. An Irish study found that singles rated natural content, weight control and sensory appeal slightly lower than those with partner, while there was a small positive association between having children and price . In our study, the impact of marital status and living situation on individuals’ motive priorities tended to be weak with some effects observed on convenience and price-cheap motives: participants living with child(ren) tended to emphasize convenience and unmarried participants appreciated cheapness. However, to fully understand how diverse living situations influence food motives, future research with more detailed groupings (e.g. based on the respondent’s gender and the number and age of children living in the household) is needed.
Although a lactose-free diet was the most common special diet in the studied households (22% of the households), our main interest concerned households following more plant-based diets. All in all, respondents living in households with vegetarian and red-meat-free diets appeared to possess a more ethically- and health-conscious motivational orientation compared to households with no special diets. A few studies assessing diets on an individual level have reported parallel observations [10, 40]. Furthermore, familiarity and sensory appeal emerged as additional motives that distinguished between households with vegetarian/red-meat-free diets and no special diets implying that these motives have a potential to act as barriers to following a more plant-based diet. Though we were unable to distinguish whether the reported diets were actually followed by the respondent or other household members, a special diet in the household is prone to influence all members’ diets as eating patterns have been found to be socially transmissible across various kinds of relationships, including spouses and parent-child dyads [10, 41]. It is noteworthy that the causal links between special diets and food motives are potentially more complex than the ones involving sociodemographic factors. It is plausible to assume that age, gender, SEP, marital status and living situation as well as related experiences and resources influence individual’s motive priorities rather than vice versa. In contrast, prioritizing certain motives can lead to adopting a specific diet, while following the diet can also gradually affect the relative importance of motives.
The present study offers two complementary areas of practical implications. First, our findings contribute to the knowledge-base that helps especially scholars, nutrition professionals and policy-makers to design more efficient and tailored interventions promoting diets that benefit human and planetary health across sociodemographic categories. To ensure the maintenance of dietary changes, it is vital to develop and implement actions that allow individuals to incorporate new eating practices in such a way that simultaneously satisfy a range of motives important in their food selection. For instance, food-related interventions targeting increased vegetable and reduced red meat intakes in lower-SEP individuals and men can benefit from taking into account greater priority of familiarity and price among other issues. A concrete example of this type of intervention could entail close collaboration with lunch or workplace canteens to develop familiar food recipes by replacing a part of red meat with plant-based protein while simultaneously ensuring the affordability and tastiness. Given that one of the strongest associations occurred between lower household income and higher salience of cheapness, our results also support the potential of using price interventions to reduce socioeconomic inequalities in healthy eating .
Second, Vadakkepatt et al.  have recently put forth the need for “sustainable retailing” to recognize and emphasize food retailers’ role in addressing the manyfold challenges related to sustainability and health. Given their unique position in the food supply chain, retailers have a critical role and potential in encouraging and facilitating changes in consumer behaviour towards healthier and more sustainable future. Toward that end, detailed insights on how food motives, such as price and convenience, relate to specific sociodemographic factors can enrich food retailers’ understanding of consumer preferences, and help them support consumers’ behavioural changes through more effective segmentation and promotional activities. This knowledge can likewise help food manufacturers to facilitate behavioural changes by designing products that, for example, take the role of familiarity for specific consumer segments better into account.
Strengths and limitations
The main strength of this study is that we utilized recently collected data of more than 10,000 Finnish adults with information on a diverse set of sociodemographic characteristics and food motives. Moreover, a valuable and unique contribution is that we simultaneously focused on the relative importance of motives (instead of only analysing the absolute importance of each motive) because it may better reflect the complexity of the motive structure. In line with this interpretation, the associations between food motives and dietary intake (as measured by a food frequency questionnaire) were found to be weaker on the absolute than on the relative level . Nonetheless, we included estimates for absolute motives in additional material (see Additional file 2) to retain the full comparability between our research and previous ones using the FCQ .
A limitation is that compared to the general Finnish adult population, the sample included more women, employed individuals and those with higher education, while retired individuals and those aged under 30 and over 70 years were underrepresented . However, sensitivity analyses applying post-stratification weights developed to correct this bias  produced similar results with a trend that the associations between age and food motives became somewhat stronger (see Additional file 3). Even though the cross-sectional study design does not allow conclusions to be drawn on causality, it can be argued that sociodemographic characteristics are more likely to influence food motives than vice versa. Because the high number of statistical tests conducted increased the likelihood for Type 1 errors, we decided to emphasize the strength of the associations (as indicated by ∆R2 values) when reporting and interpreting the results. Accordingly, we gave more emphasis on stronger associations with significance markedly smaller than the conventional nominal level of statistical significance (5%).
There are also potential limitations in the utilized measures due to the restricted questionnaire length. Special diets and income were measured only at the household level as discussed above. Although we assessed numerous motive dimensions using the 28-item version of the FCQ developed in 1995 , our study is somewhat restricted in reflecting the most recent developments in norms regarding motives for food selection (e.g. motives reflecting changed norms for locally produced foods or varied forms of masculinity ). Moreover, it would have been beneficial to measure price, familiarity and natural content more comprehensively with a higher number of items.