The psychology of the adventurous - and unadventurous - eater
The rise of a foodie culture in western countries, where people are eating more and more unfamiliar, exotic and interesting foods, is occurring alongside a steep rise in obesity levels, prompting researchers from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab to see if the two are linked.
After surveying over 500 women, the researchers found that neophiles tended to be more interested in healthy eating and have a lower BMI. But using the information collected, they were also able to create a profile for adventurous eaters and suggest how ‘neophilia’ could be fostered in more conservative eaters.
For processed food, for instance, packaging was important.
An adventurous eater is more likely to:
Have a higher salary than unadventurous eaters
Host friends for dinner
Be interested in exploring his/her culinary heritage
Enjoy trying new things in general
An unadventurous eater is more likely to:
Be influenced by celebrity endorsements of food
Care about nice packaging
Want a food to be easily prepared
Care about new food being inexpensive
"Non-adventurous eaters cared more that a food was nicely packaged than did adventurous eaters. With this in mind, one way to encourage adventurousness may be to use packaging that is eye-catching and nicely designed and that provides relevant information about how to prepare an exotic food,” the researchers wrote.
Non-adventurous eaters also said they were more likely to try a new food if a celebrity had been known to eat it. Therefore, food companies wishing to market a ‘novel’ food could use celebrity endorsements to their advantage. Wansink et al. gave the example of kale, a healthy food which gained superfood status among the general populace after being adopted by several celebrities.
The researchers surveyed 502 non-vegetarian, ethnically diverse women - 43% white, 27% black, 25% Hispanic and 5% other - who had all lived in the US for at least two generations in order to reduce variability in their background.
The subjects completed a questionnaire on their perceived healthiness, lifestyle and psychology and then the women selected which foods they had tried from a list of 16 uncommon or exotic items, including seitan, beef tongue, Kimchi, rabbit and polenta.
If a subject had tried nine or more of the exotic foods she was considered to be an adventurous eater.
Being an adventurous eater correlated strongly with having a low BMI - but these women were not necessarily more satisfied with their weight.
Wansink et al. have called for more research to be conducted with male subjects as well, who may present a different profile.
The researchers suggest that there is an evolutionary reason driving our hunger for variety – before food became a ubiquitous feature of daily life, humans needed to seek out a variety of foods to ensure macronutrient requirements were being met.
“It is possible that by eating adventurously one better imitates the type of foods and food environment our genes naturally encourage us to consume and prepared us for,” they wrote.
This drive for variety may be fueling the obesity crisis because so many of the foods available to us today are nutrient-poor and energy-dense. But by boosting variety while favouring certain food groups - fruit, vegetables and wholegrains - people could increase both variety and healthiness.
Source: Obesity Journal
Article first published online: 1 July 2015, DOI: 10.1002/oby.21154
“Food neophiles: Profiling the adventurous eater”
Authors: Lara A. Latimer, Lizzy Pope and Brian Wansink