The naked truth: Processed food is perceived as unhealthier
Experts at Portland State University and the University of Central Florida carried out a series of experiments to study how the physical state of food influences consumer perceptions and ultimately consumption.
They didn’t have to go far down the processing path before consumer perception was influenced.
In the first study, they compared 'less processed foods' (fruit, a yoghurt and a cup of peanuts) with 'more processed' versions (a smoothie made by blending the yoghurt and fruit) and a cup of peanut butter.
Participants perceived the less processed versions as healthier and lower in calories than their more processed versions. They also expected to be fuller and more satiated by the less processed products.
This is what the authors termed the blender effect, whereby “foods are perceived as healthier and lower in calories when the physical state represents the raw or a less processed physical state”.
They then added another 'more processed' level in a second study. After viewing images of an orange, a glass of orange juice and an orange juice bar, the orange was seen as the healthiest and the bar the least.
This led them to also suggest that “category representativeness” was driving the blender effect. As they put it: foods appearing in a physical state that suggests a greater degree of mechanical processing are perceived as less healthy and higher in calories because processed foods are less representative of the healthy food category.
The authors concluded that: “Using various foods, and a combination of images as well as real stimuli we showed that the physical state of a food, the state of a food pictured on a package, and the state of ingredients on display systematically influenced consumers’ product perceptions and consumption decisions.”
The findings “suggest that food manufacturers can strategically alter the physical state of foods to drive consumers’ perceptions and consumption decisions”.
Indeed, they also showed that altering the physical state of the product depicted on pack can also influence healthiness perceptions.
“Our results show that foods are perceived as lower in calories when the image on the package is in a less processed physical state,” explained Courtney Szocs, assistant professor of marketing at Portland State University and one of the paper’s authors. “For instance, we find that consumers perceive peanut butter as lower in calories when the package contains an image of peanuts versus [an image of] peanut butter.”
Reminding participants of the multiple forms foods can take reduces the blender effect, she said. Szocs told FoodNavigator: “For instance, if a consumer is reminded that apples can be served as a whole fruit, juice or sauce, then the blender effect is attenuated."
Source: Food Quality and Preference
Published online ahead of print: doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2016.07.009
"The blender effect: Physical state of food influences healthiness perceptions and consumption decisions."
Authors: Courtney Szocs and Sarah Lefebvre