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Unravelling the Behavioural Science Behind Consumer Food Choice

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Globalisation, changing consumer preferences and market competition have increased the need for industry to gain better knowledge about consumer food (and drink) choice.

By Brian Power

Consumer food choice is a rich repertoire of processes involving identifying, evaluating, purchasing and using a food product or service to satisfy needs and desires. Understanding how best to adapt to consumers’ changing food choices is important as it increases the capacity of industry to develop appropriately targeted food marketing strategies. Recent work across diverse disciplines including nutrition, bioscience, neuroscience, behavioural science, economics and marketing have attempted to systematically investigate mechanisms underpinning consumer food choice. The evidence base shows that individual, interpersonal, environment and policy-related factors are the major driving forces of consumer food choice. Many of these factors can be encountered during a typical consumer supermarket shopping experience online or in-store—for example, food promotion, pricing, hunger, habits, self-regulation and product placement. In opting for healthy food choices, consumers must also comprehend information including: establishing what a healthy diet comprises; identifying products and services that meet their nutritional needs; and evaluating nutritional characteristics of food products and services.

Despite the advances outlined above, many gaps in our understanding remain unresolved. For instance, it is unclear how the interaction between developmental, cultural and social processes shape preferences and ultimately consumer food choice. The complex interaction between food product valuation, attention and memory processes in consumer food choice is poorly understood. Implications of extrinsic product attributes such as colour, policy initiatives such as fiscal policies and environmental predictors for consumer food choice are also under-researched. No definitive conclusions can be made on these aspects before the science is fully in place. To improve our understanding about consumer food choice, behavioural analytical techniques may offer a way forward. Evolving methods in this area provide promising signs of more valid, reliable and usable evidence beyond that obtained from traditional market research techniques. Technological advances will also add value and make inroads. Gaining new insights is key if the area of consumer food choice is to continue to develop apace.

With the above in mind, it is clear innovative ways for the food industry to help consumers lead healthier lives through better food choices exist. As such, policy makers in industry and government need to be informed about relevant, timely research along these lines. These findings are cross-cutting, with relevance to many stakeholders including business and food industry, government, producers, consumer organisations, academia and practitioners aiming to unravel the behavioural science behind consumer food choice.

At Vitafoods Europe 2018, Brian Power will apply a behavioural science perspective to consumer food choice research, understanding such choices and practical strategies to help consumers shift towards healthier food choices. View the full programme and register to attend here

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