As the number of overweight and obese people worldwide continues to climb, policymakers and public health officials are scratching their heads over how to stimulate healthier food choices among consumers.
It’s a tall order, given the nearly universally held consumer belief that healthy foods are less tasty than unhealthy ones. But a the authors of a study published in Appetite found that optimizing certain health-unrelated food attributes (such as flavor intensity) may help compensate for the loss in taste that comes with fat or sugar reduction.
Eating habits are difficult to change because of a key goal conflict with which many consumers are faced: the belief that healthy food is less tasty. Communicating a product’s health benefits through campaigns and interventions can only go so far, as food decisions are often made unconsciously and food healthfulness tends to be odds with high sensory quality (which is the primary driver of food choice).
Using an empirical study involving cookies, the researchers explored the strategy of compensating for lower fat or sugar using health-unrelated attributes and how it depends on three major factors: consumer segment, configuration of the food product and the type of evaluation process. Model cookies were varied in sugar, fat and flavor content; while extrinsic information was manipulated by package labels.
Through market simulations and sensitivity analyses, the researchers identified four customer segments (or “clusters”) with very different preference patterns guiding their food choices. This showed that compensation effects depend on which type of health-related attribute is reduced and whether the health-unrelated attribute is improved via product composition or via packaging. Cluster 1 was least accepting of a reduction in sugar content, cluster 2 of a reduction in fat content, cluster 3 disliked intense flavors, and cluster 4 was less likely to oversimplify food decision-making based on one category.
“Analysis of attribute importance revealed that the strong sensitivity of these segments to the reduced-sugar (Cluster 1), the reduced-fat (2), and the flavor-improved cookies (3) stem from the sensory evaluation of the products, regardless of product packaging,” the authors wrote. “Consumers in cluster 4, on the contrary, are less likely to oversimplify their food decision making as all attributes are of similar relevance. This segment is more accepting of fat- and sugar-reduced cookies in combination with intense flavor.”
Thus, in order to make use of compensation effects, marketers have to consider the respective target segment, the health-related food constituent that is reduced and the way flavor intensity is addressed. Indeed, increasing flavor intensity (which would appeal to cluster 4) or emphasizing the cookies’ flavor (cluster 2) can certainly boost a product’s attractiveness, but this strategy is irrelevant to those in cluster 1 and may even backfire for consumers in cluster 3.
Furthermore, the researchers found it much more difficult to mask reduction in sugar content than in fat content. The subjects tended to favor the variant that was labeled "sugar-reduced", though their sensory evaluations indicated a strong dislike of that product. Indeed, for most consumers, sensory perceptions were the dominant driver of choice compared with visual inspection of the packaging, underscoring the fact that taste is the primary driver in the food decision.
Overall, this study gives promising evidence that the loss in taste when reducing health-related food constituents can be somewhat compensated for through health-unrelated food attributes. “Even more importantly,” the authors added, “they highlight that the boundary conditions have strong interactions. Consequently, food producers who aim to enhance their healthier variants of a food product are well advised to account for these three criteria and to optimize their food products accordingly.”
“Tailoring compensation effects of health-unrelated food properties”
Authors: Robert Mai, Susann Zahn, Karin Hoppert, Stefan Hoffmann and Harald Rohm