Product familiarity cited as to why people struggle with new dietary foods, study finds.

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

The familiarity of some foods, such as chocolate have made switching to other foods difficult with consumers. ©iStock/robtek
The familiarity of some foods, such as chocolate have made switching to other foods difficult with consumers. ©iStock/robtek

Related tags: Nutrition, Food and drink, Food

It seems people may be creatures of habit when it comes to food and drink as a study has highlighted the difficulty consumers have in including new products into existing dietary habits.

The research, conducted by researchers from the University of Denmark and New Zealand, found the familiarity of certain food names, and food and drink images had a huge say in how they viewed usage and subsequent consumption of these products.

Furthermore, the research indicated that consumers could find it difficult to include unfamiliar food products into their existing dietary practices.

The gist of these findings is a factor that food manufacturers have had to contend with for some time.

Brand recognition, familiarity in taste and overall enjoyment of foods are seen as the main reasons why novel products can struggle in the marketplace post launch.

In addition, the advent of product reformulation, in which foods are recreated with a reduced amount of salt, sugar or fat, have not fared as well as expected.

These results point towards a struggle in adapting to unfamiliar tastes that risk pushing consumers over to a rival brand or product.  

Food and drink studies

kiwi Droits d'auteur azgek
One of the studies involved how subjects would use kiwifruit in a number of situations. ©iStock/azgek

Here, four consumer studies were conducted. A total of 246 subjects were enrolled in the first study that used fruit names, 112 subjects that used white wine images, 192 subjects that looked at chocolate bar images and 302 images that used kiwifruit images.

In each study, subjects rated their familiarity with each food and drink assessing the appropriateness of use in a number of situations relevant to the product category.

An example of ‘use’ situations in the first study included: “As a healthy alternative to other snacks”, “As part of a dessert”, “For energy”, “For use in juices/smoothies”, “For variety in my fruit consumption” ​and “In a green salad.”

Product familiarity was rated on a five point scale with one indicating “not at all familiar” and five as “extremely familiar.”

The results from the four studies demonstrated that consumers found familiar products appropriate for a wider range of uses.

The past as reference point

chocolate eating girl - Stefano Tinti
Familiarity breeds comfort, a study suggested. ©iStock/Stefano Tinti

The link between product familiarity and versatility confirmed that consumers drew on past behaviour to assign appropriate usages for foods and beverages.

The evidence obtained here echoes previous evidence gathered in a series of studies​ that observed an effect that was generalisable across multiple categories.

Taking a broader perspective, the researchers noted that existing food habits may be formed as a preference for foods that do not upset the existing state and are resistant to change

The reasons why consumers do not perceive as many appropriate usages for unfamiliar products are probably various, and are associated with a number of known hurdles to consumer adoption​of novel products.

A piece of research attempting to explain this pointed to the adage that familiarity breeds comfort​ therefore increasing desirability in existing usage patterns and routines.

“Additionally, because of the difficulty of evaluating unfamiliar foods, consumers might worry that an unfamiliar product item might not live up to expectations (e.g., will not have desired sensory characteristics) and be a potential waste of money,”​ the study concluded.

“The inherent complexity and the cognitive effort associated with evaluating unfamiliar products or product features may itself be a source of negative bias against new products.”

Source: Journal of Economic Psychology

Published online ahead of print,

“Better the devil you know? How product familiarity affects usage versatility of foods and beverages.”

Authors: Davide Giacalone, Sara Jaeger et al.

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