By Professor Richard Newcomb, chief scientist at Plant & Food Research
To succeed in the market, new food products are targeted to consumer needs and wants. Typically, developing new products involves assessing what’s currently available and identifying where new products might fit against the context of consumer preferences.
Understanding the drivers behind consumer choices is a major research theme that runs through food science. The challenge is to predict what future consumers might want. Who would have guessed that the market for bottled water would skyrocket when tap water is essentially free?
Many approaches are used to understand consumer behaviours. Running imaginary auctions and going into people’s homes to understand how they use and prepare food are just two of them. Even simply surveying consumers in the supermarket about product choices can be insightful, particularly in countries where New Zealand products are sold.
Cultural attitudes can have an influence on purchasing decisions. In some cultures, certain foods may be a status symbol, for example. Think bird’s nest soup and abalone in China, or caviar in the west. Names can also get lost in translation and may mean something different from what was intended.
Generational differences are another consideration. Millennials, for example, want foods that offer sustainability and health credentials, not just enjoyment. Convenience is also a driver for this population, spurring the demand for snack foods. Food personalisation is also important – providing choices for a variety of palates and lifestyles.
Of course, enjoyment through flavour will always be a major driver with food products. For some consumers good taste equates with foods high in fat, sugar and salt. Yet a diet high in these is linked to obesity-related diseases, including diabetes and heart disease, which can create a burden on public health services.
Increasingly, business leaders and government authorities have begun to highlight this issue. From an ethical point of view, should we just give consumers what they think tastes good? Or should we be trying to produce and market foods that are healthier and better for the planet and then educating consumers on the values in these foods? Is it possible to find a balance between what consumers want and what’s best for them?
A number of countries, including Canada, France, Ireland and the UK have already taken a stance on food marketing to children. As the debate around the health responsibilities of food producers and marketers progresses, consumer research will continue to be key to informing the debate and supporting the implementation of healthier eating programmes.
Professor Richard Newcomb is chief scientist at Plant & Food Research overseeing all aspects of science quality, strategic science, capability development and collaboration across the institute. He is also an honorary professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Auckland.