Utilising eye-tracking technologies to assess how health conscious consumers perceive food products could help manufacturers improve label designs and better promote healthy products, say researchers.
The study, published LWT - Food Science and Technology, investigated how consumers perceived the healthiness of meals containing fish products using eye tracking technology - finding that although consumers focused more attention on a relatively new fish presentation, the fish burger, unfamiliar presentations and fried products were perceived as less healthy.
The Spanish team behind the research said the use of eye tracking technology was an 'innovative, simple, non-invasive' technique allowed more insight into consumer behaviour through analysis of what underpins their attention and the processes behind the assessment of food products.
Led by Paula Varela from the Spanish Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), the team said the implications of their work stretch far beyond the fish category - suggesting that the technology makes it possible to identify the ways in which label designs could be modified to improve the consumers' ability to locate nutrition information and use it.
"In our work, the innovation was using this technique on meals (prepared dishes), to gain a better understanding of what underlies the perception of the healthiness of the different fish products," Varela told FoodNavigator.
"Being non-invasive it helps to understand how a consumer would behave or take a decision in a rather natural scenario."
She added that fish was just an example that fitted with the project, but from a methodological standpoint, it "opened a gate" to further use of this technique in studies that focus on consumers' visual perception of food.
“Eye tracking has been used extensively in marketing research and is becoming more and more common as a method for monitoring consumer attention to food labels," wrote the team. "As far as we know there have been no reports of using eye tracking to evaluate perceptions of the quality of different kinds of food products."
The eye-tracking study asked 30 mothers from Spain to look at 15 different combinations of fish products (fillet, nuggets and fish burger) on a plate with side vegetables. At the same time eye technology tracked the location and duration of their visual attention precisely, using special cameras.
Rather than simply asking "what do you think is healthier, a fish fillet or a nugget?", they were shown pictures of the different fish products and side vegetables (lettuce, boiled potatoes, tempura and French fries). Then they were asked "how healthy do you think this dish is?"
The researchers recorded how participants made that decision by tracking their gaze, which they said "allowed a better understanding of the cognitive process behind the healthiness assessment".
"The perception of healthiness is important for choosing a product," explained the researchers. "Health-motivated consumers are more likely to seek information or pay attention to cues that help them asses the healthiness of a number of food options.
Source: LWT - Food Science and Technology
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.lwt.2013.10.013
"Are fish products healthy? Eye tracking as a new food technology tool for a better understanding of consumer perception"
Author: Marina L. Mitterer-Daltoé, Maria I. Queiroz, Susana Fiszman, Paula Varela