What makes us like low calorie yoghurt and cheese?

Why do consumers choose low calorie products instead of traditional products? What criteria must be fulfilled to make consumers choose the low calorie varieties?

These are some of the questions for which Susanne Bølling Johansen has sought answers while working for her doctorate. Her doctoral disputation took place on 25 March.

A cross-cultural study of young consumers in Norway, Denmark and the USA shows that the most important reason for choosing the lighter versions of yoghurt and cheese is that dairy products with a low fat content are perceived as relatively healthy compared with other foods. It is also important for the products to taste good.

Quantitative studies of acceptance

The results of the cross-cultural study formed the basis for two quantitative surveys to discover Norwegian consumers’ preferences for the low calorie/low fat varieties of yoghurt and cheese respectively.

The study investigated sensory perception and the influence of nutritional information on acceptance. Then various statistical and data analyses were performed on the material.

“Before carrying out the consumer studies for low calorie yoghurt, we held focus groups to find out the extent to which Norwegian consumers are conscious of the nutritional content of yoghurt. We found out that in general Norwegian consumers are not particularly well informed about the nutritional content of yoghurt, as regards either fat or sugar content,” explains Susanne B. Johansen, PhD student at Nofima Mat.

The yoghurt must be sweet

“When you carry out taste tests it is important to understand that the consumers cannot differentiate products if they taste too many. Where the limit lies varies from product to product. We use our sensory taste judges to carry out the first selection so that we are left with fewer products, but there are still sensory nuances we wish to investigate,” says Susanne Johansen.

In the yoghurt studies, the taste judge panel at Nofima Mat carried out sensory testing of twelve varieties of yoghurt. They chose four varieties that had clear variations in sweetness and body. These four varieties were tested on 153 health conscious consumers, firstly in a blind test and then with information about sugar and fat content.

We found that sweetness had a great effect on whether reduced calorie yoghurt was liked. Even though the consumers had a negative reaction to information about increased sugar content, giving information about nutritional content had a generally positive effect on consumers liking for and the probability of purchase of low calorie yoghurt.

“We ran a conjoint analysis in which we combined variation in the sensory properties sweetness and body with variation in the nutritional information about sugar and fat content. We found that the nutritional information has a significance and that this effect is independent of the strength of the sensory properties,” says Susanne Bølling Johansen.

Want cheese that isn’t too low fat

One of the purposes of the study of low fat cheeses was to increase our understanding of the Norwegian consumer’s preferences for low fat cheese, as well as to identify potential customer segments. The criteria for being included in the survey were being relatively health conscious and eating hard cheese at least 2 to 3 times a week. 115 consumers took part and tested 12 cheeses.

An important part of the study was to develop design and analysis strategies for mapping non-linear preference patterns. The consumers were divided into two groups, and each group tasted six cheeses with a fat content of between 5 and 17 per cent.

“The two consumer groups were run together in the modelling tool and analyses using the fuzzy clustering method showed that the consumers were divided into three clear sensory customer segments,” explains the doctoral candidate.

Firstly the consumers tasted the cheeses without knowing anything about them, not even that they were cheeses with a low fat content. After a pause, they tasted the same cheeses, but without being aware of this, but this time with information about the fat content.

“Cheeses with a fat content of around 17 per cent gained a greater acceptance after the consumers had been informed about the fat percentage. While cheese with a very low fat content gained less acceptance when the consumers were told the fat percentage. Besides increasing our understanding of Norwegian consumers’ preferences, the studies of consumer attitudes to low fat cheese have given us new information about which statistical analysis method is best suited for arriving at the most correct basis for making decisions,” concludes Susanne B. Johansen.

Consumer and sensory sciences  

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