Buying food on autopilot

“People in general are very habit driven in their choice of food for breakfast and lunch. On the other hand, the choice of dinner is often an impulse purchase for many, while others plan in advance,” says Honkanen. Share:   

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Pirjo Honkanen

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Phone: +47 915 94 520
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 “People in general are very habit driven in their choice of food for breakfast and lunch. On the other hand, the choice of dinner is often an impulse purchase for many, while others plan in advance,” says Honkanen.
“People in general are very habit driven in their choice of food for breakfast and lunch. On the other hand, the choice of dinner is often an impulse purchase for many, while others plan in advance,” says Honkanen.

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What influences your choices when you are buying food? Fresh research points to the fact that healthy attitudes don’t necessary change bad habits.

Do you always buy sweets and ready-made pizza even though you know they are unhealthy?

“Although we know five servings of fruit per day are good for our health, not everyone buys more fruit and vegetables for this reason,” says Nofima Senior Scientist Pirjo Honkanen.

She is leading an ongoing research project about food habits, which is being financed by The Food Programme at the Research Council of Norway. The role of habits in our food choices is an area which until now has been the subject of little research in Norway.

“How behaviour becomes habits remains an unanswered question. The same applies to how unhealthy habits can be changed and which measures function best,” says Honkanen. “It is a widespread opinion among the scientists that the choices are controlled more by habits than rational decisions in which decisions are based on a thorough evaluation of the alternatives.”

Creature of habit for breakfast and lunch

Honkanen says that, among other things, the increase of food-related diseases as a result of poor diet shows that it is important to carry out research about how consumers choose food and which factors influence their choices. Such knowledge is important for both health authorities and for the food industry.

The scientists conducted in-depth interviews with 20 consumers as well as an online survey with 1600 participants. During the in-depth interviews, the consumers were asked questions including what they usually buy.

“People in general are very habit driven in their choice of food for breakfast and lunch,” says Honkanen. “On the other hand, the choice of dinner is often an impulse purchase for many, while others plan in advance.”

Differs from person to person

“It is difficult to change habits even though we know we should. Our hypothesis is that many purchases happen automatically,” says Senior Scientist Pirjo Honkanen at Nofima Marked. “In other words, we can change our attitudes and be influenced by healthy food campaigns, but our habits can remain the same.”

“Our research shows that attitudes do not necessarily influence our choice if our behaviour is habit driven. Habits are in fact triggered by stimuli in the environment. The surroundings play a big part. When you are hungry in a shop, you can be triggered by the food products you encounter on the shelves.”

Honkanen’s analyses to date point to the fact that many of our purchases are impulse driven, especially purchases of snacks, and that personality is the completely decisive.

“If you have a high level of self-control, there will be less impulse purchases.”

So what is needed in order to change our habits?

“Routines and stability lead to the development of habits. Earlier research points to the fact that if we do something new, such as moving to a new place, our habits can change drastically. I’m not saying that we need to move in order to buy healthier food.”

Plan!

One thing than can work is the planning of your grocery shopping.

“If you decide that you will always eat an apple when you want chocolate, it can have an important effect. It’s a case of working systematically with such habits,” emphasises Honkanen.

Previous research experiments show that if people plan their choices, they will often succeed in changing their habits. Trials with people under experimental conditions show that they can change attitudes and behaviour.

“But when they return to their normal lives, unfortunately we see that the consumers easily fall back to their old patterns.”

Another measure is the in-store placement of food products.

“They can remove sweets from the check-out and healthy food can be cheaper, something which some chains have done,” says Honkanen. “Our research provides for the first time a scientific basis of how habits are taken into consideration in our choices in Norway, and possibly how we can create new, healthy food habits.”

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