Research probes meaning of 'traditional’ and ‘innovative’ food

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food Food industry

Two recent studies that investigate European consumers’ associations of ‘traditional’ and ‘innovative’ foods could guide companies looking to adapt well-known products to new markets or improve efficiencies.

From Spain’s Serrano ham, to Norway’s smoked salmon, Europe is rich in regional foodstuffs, and people are often fiercely protective of products that are perceived to have strong ties to place and through history.

At the same time, consumers are keen on greater variety of foodstuffs, more convenient and more healthy, that fit better with modern lifestyles.

“In this context, there are some unexploited opportunities for traditional food producers to maintain and even increase their market share by introducing innovations in their products, given that some of the technologies involved in the production of traditional foods still rely on traditional manufacturing practices with low competitiveness and poor efficiency,”​ wrote Luis Guerrero and an international team of co-authors in Food Quality and Preference.

But Guerrero said: "Producers of traditional foodstuffs (local, regional and national products that make up traditional cuisine) face problems when it comes to incorporating changes and innovations brought in by the food industry without harming their image, which is without any doubt their greatest competitive advantage".

In work funded by TRUEFOOD, a project of the European Commission’s 6th Framework Programme, the team asked consumers in six regions in six European countries to give word associations for ‘traditional’ and ‘innovative’ foods.

The regions were Flanders in Belgium, Burgundy in France, Lazio region of Italy, Aksershus and Østfold in Norway, Mazovia in Poland, and Catalonia in Spain.

Tradition vs innovation

One study, published in journal Appetite​ last year, involved 95 consumers, who took part in focus groups (two groups per region). The objective was to find consumer-driven definitions for the concepts of ‘traditional food products’ (TFP) and ‘innovation in TFP’.

In general, they found consumers struggled to define ‘traditional’, and found the concept ambiguous and confusing. But despite cultural differences, there were similarities of understanding between the regions. Four main dimensions were detected: habits and natural; origin and locality; processing and elaboration; and sensory properties.

When it came to innovation, however, there were more differences. Belgian and French consumers tended to be more open to innovation than the Polish and Norwegians, who were “quite critical”. Italians saw innovation as “something they have to live with and accept” in the modern world, while Spanish consumers were rather neutral and kept in mind both advantages and disadvantages.

Traditional focus

The second study, which is published in this month’s Food Quality and Preference ​journal, looked more closely at associations for ‘traditional’. A total of 721 consumers were individually interviewed and asked to state the first words that came into their mind when the interviewer said the word ‘traditional’.

They were asked not to mention brands and specific foods and dishes, which would make it hard to compare the results. The words they came up with were put into 55 different classes, then grouped into 10 dimensions using triangulation.

In general, the Southern European regions tended to associate ‘traditional’ with concepts like heritage, culture or history. Those in Central and Nordic European countries, on the other hand, “focused mainly on practical issues such as convenience, health or appropriateness”.

The team say the findings need to be confirmed and validated in a quantitative study involving larger and representative consumer samples.

But they concluded: “The empirical findings obtained from the free word association test provide valuable insight for product positioning, innovation and new developments in the traditional food market”.


Appetite 52 (2009) 345–354
“Consumer-driven definition of traditional food products and innovation in traditional foods. A qualitative cross-cultural study”
Authors: Luis Guerrero, Maria Dolors Guardia, Joan Xicola, Wim Verbeke, Filiep Vanhonacker, Sylwia Zakowska-Biemans, Marta Sajdakowska, Claire Sulmont-Rosse, Sylvie Issanchou, Michele Contel, M. Luisa Scalvedi, Britt Signe Granli, Margrethe Hersleth

Food Quality and Preference 21 (2010) 225–233
“Perception of traditional food products in six European regions using free word association”
Luis Guerrero, Anna Claret, Wim Verbeke, Geraldine Enderli, Sylwia Zakowska-Biemans, Filiep Vanhonacker, Sylvie Issanchou, Marta Sajdakowska, Britt Signe Granli, Luisa Scalvedi, Michele Contel, Margrethe Hersleth

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