FPD Exclusive: Consumer Attitudes About Food Science, Innovation

Nicole Patterson, principal analyst at Leatherhead Food Research, will present findings from new research into consumer attitudes to science in food and innovation at Vitafoods South America on April 9 in São Paulo, Brazil. Food Product Design had the opportunity to interview Patterson and provide an exclusive preview of the results.

Nicole Patterson, principal analyst at Leatherhead Food Research

Nanotechnology, biotechnology, GMOs ... for those in the food industry these are all buzzwords, but it seems consumers are still on the fence when it comes to what this means for them. Nicole Patterson, principal analyst at Leatherhead Food Research, will present findings from new research into consumer attitudes to science in food and innovation at Vitafoods South America on April 9 in São Paulo, Brazil. Food Product Design had the opportunity to interview Patterson and provide an exclusive preview of the results.

FPD: How do consumers feel about science and technology when it comes to food?

Patterson: From the research, around 70% of consumers show some positivity toward scientific progress; however, this positivity decreases when you link science and technology with food. There is a lot of indifference from consumers, which is perhaps due to a lack of understanding. Consumers really need to feel the benefits of new technology or science, to them, to hold a positive attitude, and there is definitely a barrier in the food industry. Consumers can see the bigger picture—world hunger, GM crops, etc.—but the link between how scientific and technological advances in food affect them directly as U.K. consumers still isn’t happening. Consumers aren’t necessarily against these advances, but more needs to be done to communicate the benefits.

FPD: What are consumers’ perceptions around nanotechnology, and does that correlate with the messaging from companies?

Patterson: Nanotechnology is a difficult subject to bring up with consumers and has to be done very carefully. We used a stepped approach in the questionnaire to investigate attitudes to science and technology generally, and only then introduced the non consumer-friendly term. When we first broached the topic in this research, around half claimed they weren’t aware of the term nanotechnology—of those that were aware, key associations were “technology", “small", “molecular" and “particles" showing there is an element of understanding. We therefore offered a definition and then asked for attitudes to nanotechnology in food. Even then around one-third of people were still sitting on the fence, unable to say whether they felt positively or negatively about nanotechnology. This is again probably due to a lack of information they could personally relate to.

The good news is that consumers do want to know more. In fact, “intrigued" came out on top as the main response to how they felt about nanotechnology. Interestingly, there was not a lot of difference between age-groups as would usually expect younger people to be much more positive about new technologies.

Food companies, therefore, need to provide consumers with much more information around nanotechnology so consumers feel they are making an informed decision when selecting food and drink products. A lot of consumers have the impression that the industry tampers with food for the sake of it. Trust is crucial for companies to avoid a negative perception because if you think about GM food, you can see where things can go wrong. I asked people to rate their feelings toward the acceptability of recent technologies, and GM came off worse than nuclear power. This is most likely due consumers being able to more readily see the benefits of nuclear power compared to GM.

FPD: Why has biotechnology become such a hot-button issue with consumers, and what do marketers need to know to best position their products in this changing market?

Patterson: This piece of research didn’t touch on perceptions toward the term biotechnology, but even nanotechnology was enough of a leap for consumers. The food industry definitely needs to think very carefully about the language used when promoting products. At the moment terms such as nanotechnology are not making an impact and are much more associated with gadgets. Natural is a big trend in the food industry, which to consumers appears to be at the opposite end of the spectrum to terms such as nanotechnology and biotechnology. Terminology needs to remain food focused and relatively non-technical, and a lot more information needs to be provided to consumers before they will be comfortable with positively accepting new technologies in food.

FPD: Do consumers perceive “innovation" and “science" to be related or in opposition, given the changing attitudes toward some of these ingredient-centric technologies?

Patterson: Consumers relate innovation and technology to mobile phones, tablets, etc., and this has become the norm. However, science is not as consumer-friendly, particularly with older generations for which the word science conjures images of labs, test tubes, Bunsen burners and bubbling colored chemicals. However, the younger generation is hopefully beginning to view science more positively. Personalities, such as Brian Cox and Heston Blumenthal, are making science more accessible in the U.K. Chef Blumenthal, for whom science is central to his cooking style, is popularizing the link between science and food, while Professor Cox is making science in general more popular.

Consumers still don’t really understand how science is used in food. For example, when salt or sugar is removed, many consumers simply believe this should make products cheaper. However, what they don’t realize is that a lot of science goes into creating a product that has the same mouthfeel, texture and appearance as the non-reduced version, as the salt or sugar has many more sensory functions to perform than just taste.

For more information on the Vitafoods South America Seminar Theatre 2014 and a complete list of speakers, click here. The Vitafoods portfolio includes Vitafoods Europe, Geneva; Vitafoods Asia, Hong Kong; Vitafoods South America, São Paulo; the recently launched Vitafoods Africa, Johannesburg; and Finished Products Europe.

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