By Jenny Splitter
Food companies have a difficult tightrope to walk when they develop a new product. Do they choose the best-tasting ingredients, or should they opt for the healthier ones? The answer can be complicated because it all depends on the consumer. What do they value? How do they perceive the ingredient? Some consumers prize taste over everything else, but others are willing to sacrifice some amount of tastiness for what they perceive as health benefits, says self-described marketing geek Mark Cornthwaite, during his FIRST session, “The Food ‘X’ Factor: How Ingredient Perceptions Allied to Consumer Sentiment Drive Product Development and R&D.” For companies looking to develop a new food product or revamp an existing product, understanding consumers and their perceptions is critical.
If you’re marketing to consumers who value taste over all else, choosing ingredients can be an easy proposition. Just look for whatever tastes best. But there may be a good business reason to target the healthy-preferring or “healthwise” consumers. According to Cornthwaite, these customers are willing to pay a significant markup for their food. “There’s real money to be made,” he says.
Figuring out which ingredients are more healthful and natural sounding are where things can get a little bit tricky. Other than high fructose corn syrup, which is widely regarded by consumers as artificial and unhealthy, most ingredients will provoke a wide range of reactions. For example, in Cornthwaite’s 2017 study of consumer preferences, 60% of consumers perceived soy protein as “natural,” whereas 14% perceived it as “artificial,” and 26% were unsure. In a 2019 survey, 41% felt tapioca starch was “natural,” yet 22% thought it was “artificial,” and 37% were unsure. The addition of certain words can shift a consumer’s perception too. When you add words that suggest processing like “textured” or “concentrate” to ingredients, customers tend to regard that ingredient as less natural.
Product developers should approach revamping an existing product differently, advises Cornthwaite. Customers looking at an ingredient label for white bread in a survey conducted by Cornthwaite were more likely to trust the ingredients on the label because white bread is a product they know very well, even if a particular ingredient wasn’t familiar. But the reverse is also true. If a product is already perceived as unhealthy, swapping the ingredients for “cleaner” or more natural-sounding ingredients is unlikely to persuade consumers in the healthy group to start buying that product. The bottom line: Pay close attention to who your customers are and how they perceive ingredients. It will pay off in the long run.
Jenny Splitter is a freelance science journalist based in Washington, DC.
IFT Career Path Survey respondents offer candid commentary on the impact of race, sexual orientation, and gender on career progression.
Managers seeking to fill a job opening in the current competitive environment need to remember that market conditions have changed over the past two years and traditional hiring approaches don’t necessarily apply. Recruiters have some advice.
When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, actions speak louder than words, according to the panelists who participated in a Business FIRST session on the first day of IFT FIRST.
Chris Downs and IFT members reflect on what IFT membership means to them.
A description of the ways in which the Coca-Cola Women in STEM (CWIS) supports women’s advancement.
A first-of-its-kind IFT research initiative asked food science professionals to reflect on their professional pathways—how they got to where they are today, what makes their jobs meaningful, and where they hope to be in the future.
Science of food salaries have surged, and the employment landscape has changed. IFT’s latest compensation research breaks it down: earnings, expectations, and aspirations.
IFT President Vickie Kloeris reflects on IFT's vision, mission, impact areas, and core values.
In a new white paper, our experts examine the FDA’s Food Traceability Final Rule implications—and its novel concepts first proposed by IFT.
IFT’s 2022 Compensation and Career Path Report breaks it down.
From a processed foods comeback to breaking food system silos and addressing food and nutrition security, our science and policy experts identify top science of food trends.
Hear from three current Board Members about why their participation is so valuable.