The findings, taken from a 4000-strong survey across eight European countries and two further experimental studies which suggested a causal link, can be explained by an interaction of both psychological and neurological mechanisms, said the researchers.
“The results … show that the food's ethical origin plays a causal role in inducing moral satisfaction, [which] influences the expectation and experience of taste, as well as intentions to buy the food in the future," said the team, from the University of Brussels and Oxford University.
“We assumed two possible bases for a link between moral satisfaction and taste expectations and experience: psychological, in the form of a halo effect, and neurological, in the form of activation of common reward-related neural system. The exciting possibility that moral satisfaction and taste are related at the level of neural activation remains to be confirmed with neuro-imaging techniques."
Taste takes precedence
The researchers found that feelings of moral satisfaction were the most important factor for the initial purchases of ethical food. However once this taste-moral satisfaction link was established in consumers’ minds, the belief that the taste of ethical food was superior to conventional food took precedence and became the main motivator for continued purchases.
“The morality-enhanced tastiness of ethical food appears to act as a reinforcing mechanism that sustains consumers' buying intentions and willingness to pay for ethical food,” said the study.
This was a key factor in determining the staying power of ethical food in the global market. The study noted that uptake of other environmentally-friendly activities which give feelings of moral satisfaction - such as recycling and donations to charity - has remained stable in comparison with the boom seen by organic market for the same period – currently valued at €66bn in 2015 according to IFOAM.
However, only consumers who were moderately or strongly in favour of organic, Fairtrade or locally-sourced food in the first place reported a higher taste experience.
Mood doesn't matter
The team analysed data from a 2005 survey across eight European countries which found a correlation between buying organic tomato sauce and feelings of moral satisfaction. They then conducted two further experimental studies involving nearly 200 participants.
In the first study participants were divided into two groups - one group was told that a biscuit company engaged in environmentally-friendly practices during the manufacturing stage while the other was told that the company's methods caused harm to the environment.
They were then given biscuits to eat and were asked to rate taste expectations, experience, moral satisfaction and whether they intended to buy it again. The eco-friendly biscuits fared better for all criteria.
The researchers also measured participants’ mood before the study and found that a lower mood did not lead to fewer feelings of moral satisfaction. “Importantly, this study also demonstrated that the effect of moral satisfaction is distinct from that of positive mood, and explains unique variance in taste expectations, over and above the variance explained by perceptions of the food's quality.”
The researchers found similar results for the second experiment when changing the variables to Fairtrade chocolate and locally-sourced apple juice - common markers of product ethicality for consumers.
The findings build on previous research conducted on a smaller scale. Swedish researchers suggested that positive taste perceptions for organic food were determined by how easily consumers can imagine the organic production methods – it is easier to imagine organic coffee than organic soda drinks, they found.
Source: Appetite Journal
"Savouring morality. Moral satisfaction renders food of ethical origin subjectively tastier"
Authors: B Bratanova, N. Kervyn et al.