Our emotional engagement with food

Getting shoppers to try new food products and negotiating a place for them on the already crammed supermarket shelves is not easy.

About 80 per cent of new products fail. Many people, predominantly men, are what the food industry call “neophobes” – more likely to resist anything new.

Some completely novel drinks and foods, like kombucha, quinoa and hummus, take off and brands multiply very quickly. It seems there are many emotional and cultural factors beyond taste that determine uptake.

Professor Joanne Hort​ recently moved to New Zealand from the UK to take up the Fonterra-Riddet Chair in Consumer and Sensory Science at Massey University.

In her previous job at Nottingham University, she worked closely with the brewing industry as well as food producers and marketers.

She is already in demand here as a judge of our burgeoning cottage gins and vodkas.

Hort is particularly interested in individual differences in sensory perception across different cultures (markets) and life stages, especially taste and texture. Smell and taste are complicated interrelated responses, largely influenced by genes.

She recently carried out an experiment with 100 UK consumers to test the acceptability of a new (to the test group) ingredient called bambara groundnut in savoury crackers and sweet biscotti-style biscuits.

The African groundnut grows easily in poor soils and needs very little water, so is one of the crops of interest as scientists scan the possibilities for more sustainable crops to achieve food security in a climate-changing world.

Her method and findings, recently published in Food Research International, are important because they are generally applicable to any producer wanting to test the marketability of alternative products, and are proof of the importance of sustainability factors to consumers.

The test group compared the taste of the two biscuits, one lot made with ordinary wheat flour, the second with bambara nut flour.

No information was given to them about bambara flour, so they were just blindly comparing taste and texture. There were no significant differences in overall liking, although they did note differences in texture and taste.

In the second phase of the experiment, researchers reconvened the group and told them all about the bambara nut and its sustainability and nutritional benefits (high in protein).

This substantially shifted their attitudes in favour of the product and said it made them feel less “guilty” about consuming the biscuits, and would result in them positively preferring them, and even paying a premium.

The more neophobic in the group were less influenced by this information, but nevertheless impressed.

Hort says her findings underscore the need for New Zealand producers to first understand the emotional factors for consumers in different countries, segmented by age, gender, income etc, and to tell them (true) stories about a product’s provenance.

There are other important variables we have to be aware of. For example, while local consumers are now opposed to packaging, many Chinese consumers tend to judge a product by its cover.

“Prior research into people’s emotional engagement is a better predictor of a product’s success than liking alone,” says Hort.

“Consumers have a very emotional relationship with food. I love cream cakes but I don’t eat them because they make me feel guilty.”

This article was originally published by Stuff Media on March 9 2020

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