How cultural factors and health expectations affect consumer choice

June 21, 2011

Understanding consumers’ attitudes toward food and what motivates their purchasing habits is not black and white. Consumers have a complex relationship with food driven by such factors as health, emotion, geography, nostalgia, culture, ethnicity, and religion. To be more effective at helping Americans to eat healthful diets, product developers and nutritionists must acknowledge and respect the many roles that these factors have, said Mary K. Young, Executive VP, Edelman.

Young and other experts presented their perspectives and research on society’s relationship with food during the session, “The Way We Eat: Weaving Cultural Anthropology and Consumer Science into Food Product Development.” The session began with a discussion by Polly Adema, a culinary anthropologist, whose research has shown that food choices are affected by culture rather than science. What is considered edible in one culture is not considered so in another. Take insects for example, which are a source of protein and other nutrients and an ingredient in contemporary cuisine in many cultures but not in America, she said. It is probably safe to say that Americans will not be indulging in meals consisting of crickets, wasps, and other creepy-crawlers anytime soon. But who knows. At one time garlic was frowned upon by Americans and thought of as a food only Italian immigrants ate. Over time, however, socio-cultural dynamics helped transition garlic as well as other foods of Italian heritage from foreign to fad, emphasized Adema. Now, store shelves are filled with products drawn from Italian and other cultural heritages as Americans have become more accepting of them.

Culture still influences consumer choices and preferences but so does the need to eat healthy foods. Young presented results of four studies conducted by Edelman that show many consumers believe that food production is on the wrong track by using too many additives and preservatives and they want more transparency in regards to nutrition and ingredient information. However, consumers are reasonable in their expectations; while they do not expect food companies to produce only “better-for-you” foods, they do want healthful food choices available.

Unfortunately, eating a healthy diet is difficult for many, said Kantha Shelke, Principal, Corvus Blue. Food product developers and nutritionists tell consumers to eat healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, dry beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds but do not consider that these foods are expensive and often out of reach for budget-conscious consumers. By developing foods that balance health, indulgence, and convenience, product developers will have success at meeting the demands of these consumers. Shelke added that product developers also need to keep in mind two things: Consumers do not always know or cannot express what they want and consumers can tell developers what they want when they see, touch, and taste it.

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