Health features low in food preference considerations, suggests study

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition

Demand for good taste and value for money may outstrip potential health benefits when it comes to consumer liking, according to a new study.

A survey of 200 Spanish consumers, published in Journal of Sensory Studies​, found that the most important factors when influencing decisions of whether to buy are taste, price, and convenience – with health and weight loss considerations coming way down the list.

The researchers also reported that the Spanish population they tested had misconceptions about weight control and food, finding that consumers linked ‘low calories’ with low fat foods, but not with low sugar ones.

“Correlation between price and convenience suggested that Spanish consumers, as in other modern societies, are driven toward a lifestyle where saving time in the preparation of food is important, but it has also to be affordable,”​ said the authors, led by E. Carrillo from the Instituto de Agroquímica y Tecnología de Alimentos (IATA), Spain.

They added that understanding the perceptions towards healthy foods is useful for researchers, food producers and manufacturers, in addition to health professionals “as a first step to design public health policies and consumer education strategies.”

Food preference

Carrillo and colleagues explained that fats and sugars provide major contributions to the sensory and palatable characteristics of foods, but the high availability of energy-dense foods in developed countries – particularly in the U.S and countries within the European Union – promotes preferences that are inconsistent with dietary guidelines and have a direct relationship to wider obesity problems.

“Increased consumption of foods with high proportions of these components is mainly due to taste preference, aroma and mouth-feel characteristics,”​ they added.

However non-sensory aspects of food choice, such as culture, can also have a major impact on food preference.

For example, previous research (Ethnicity & Health, Vol 9(4):349-67​) suggested that certain populations of African-Americans in the US believe that ‘eating healthily’ would mean giving up part of their cultural heritage, and trying to conform to the dominant culture.

“This fact points out the importance of understanding and designing appropriate dietary policies targeted for each population, in particular, when strong-rooted food-related customs are linked to the cultural background,”​ said Carrillo and co workers.

Study details

In order to better understand the motivations behind food choices, the IATA researchers surveyed a total of 200 Spanish consumers, aged between 18 and 70 and found that ‘sensory appeal’ was identified as the most important factor when choosing food. This was followed in importance by non-sensory factors including price, convenience, natural content, ethical concern, health, weight control, mood and familiarity.

The factor ‘health’ was found to be one of the lowest ranking factors for consumers, being ranked in sixth place out of nine. Also of low concern for the group of Spanish consumers was the factor of weight control, which was ranked in seventh place.

Carrillo and colleagues said that this was a surprising finding, because in modern society weight control is considered not only as a physical image of healthiness, but as an important risk factor influencing the incidence of diseases and metabolic illnesses.

Price and convenience factors were reported to be highly correlated, and worked together in consumers' choices that were not directly related to health related factors.

“The items ‘low in calories’, ‘helps me control my weight’ and ‘low in fat’ were grouped together, and positively correlated to it, suggesting that consumers recognized a clear relationship between them,”​ said the authors.

In contrast, however ‘is low in sugar’ was less associated, which according to Carrillo and team may mean that consumers did not associate low calories with low sugar content, but did associate low calories to low fat – thus suggesting that information and education about reducing sugar in diets may be required.

Source: Journal of Sensory Studies
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1111/j.1745-459X.2010.00325.x
Main factors underlying consumers’ food choice: A first step for the understanding of attitudes toward “healthy eating”
Authors: E. Carrillo, P. Varela, A. Salvador, S. Fiszman

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