Supplemental food from anthropogenic sources is a source of conflict with humans for many wildlife species. Food-seeking behaviours by black bears Ursus americanus and brown bears Ursus arctos can lead to property damage, human injury and mortality of the offending bears. Such conflicts are a well-known conservation management issue wherever people live in bear habitats. In contrast, the use of anthropogenic foods by the polar bear Ursus maritimus is less common historically but is a growing conservation and management issue across the Arctic. Here we present six case studies that illustrate how negative food-related interactions between humans and polar bears can become either chronic or ephemeral and unpredictable. Our examination suggests that attractants are an increasing problem, exacerbated by climate change-driven sea-ice losses that cause increased use of terrestrial habitats by bears. Growing human populations and increased human visitation increase the likelihood of human–polar bear conflict. Efforts to reduce food conditioning in polar bears include attractant management, proactive planning and adequate resources for northern communities to reduce conflicts and improve human safety. Permanent removal of unsecured sources of nutrition, to reduce food conditioning, should begin immediately at the local level as this will help to reduce polar bear mortality.