Not surprisingly, perceived healthiness and pleasantness are the best predictors of whether or not consumers are willing to use functional food products, consumer behaviour specialist Dr. Richard Shepherd told attendees of an AACC International conference in Montpellier, France.
The European arm of AACC International (formerly the American Association of Cereal Chemists), Cereals&Europe (C&E), is an organization of research and development professionals focused on cereal-based products. Shepherd, a faculty member from the University of Surrey, presented his ongoing research with the European Commission-funded initiative Healthy Grain to C&E's annual conference.
The primary obstacles to consumers adopting healthy whole grain products, according to Shepherd's research, are related to awareness. And increasing awareness is crucial when taking into account the rising prevalence of metabolic syndrome in Europe.
Metabolic syndrome is a condition characterised by central obesity, hypertension, and disturbed glucose and insulin metabolism. The syndrome has been linked to increased risks of both type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Fifteen per cent of adult Europeans are estimated to be affected by metabolic system, with ever-rising rates seen in children. This is still behind the United States though, where the toll is at an estimated 32 per cent.
Shepherd, who co-directs the Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre at the University of Surrey, is part of a project that conducted consumer research with approximately 500 people in the United Kingdom, Finland, Italy and Germany. Differences in basic awareness were found, with increased awareness seen in Finland.
Across all the countries, consumers rated whole grain products above refined grain products, in terms of perceived healthiness. However, Finnish participants stood out because they rated refined products as "much less" natural and healthy than whole grain products.
But no matter how much awareness there is about the healthiness of certain products, the majority of consumers will not purchase them if they do not bring the added value of good taste.
"In general, most people will not sacrifice taste and sensory enjoyment," said Shepherd.
While functional dairy products have been hugely popular, this popularity will not necessarily translate across other whole grain value added products.
"Individuals might accept functional foods in one area," said Shepherd. "That does not mean they will accept them in another area."
Some of the specific barriers to whole grain consumption, outlined by Shepherd, include: the lack of knowledge as to what a whole grain is, the lack of awareness of its health benefits, the perception of the taste and flavour of these products, as well as their cost.
The importance of how consumers view whole grain products, in the eyes of the Heath Grain initiative's aims, is to ascertain how to best get the European population to be healthier.
"Do you just tell them?" asked Shepherd. "No, that doesn't work - so you have to change their foods."
From Health Grain's consumer research, it would appear the critical age group to access is younger generations. The project found in all the countries older people were more concerned about health than younger respondents, as well as more "positive" about functional foods and whole grains.
The same was true overall of women, as compared to men. According to Shepherd, women in the four countries researched were more willing to use products with whole grains, such as pasta or bread with added fibre.