What’s in it for me?
Freshly-squeezed juice and a long shelf life are two ideas that certainly seem to contradict each other. New processing technologies make it possible for juice to have a long shelf life and still retain its natural flavour, but consumers are often sceptical. What is needed to gain the consumers' acceptance?
High-pressure processing (HPP) and pulsed electric field (PEF) processing are two of these new technologies. Researchers at the food research institute Nofima have been looking at consumer attitudes to them.
"To ensure that consumers approach these new technologies with a benevolent attitude, the food producers must think through the possible barriers and what arguments can be used to overcome them," says Nofima research scientist Nina Veflen Olsen. She has been leading the work on the study.
An uncertain consumer is a sceptical consumer
The commonest cause of consumer scepticism towards new processing technologies is that these methods are unknown. People are uncertain whether food products are safe. While the food producers focus on technological innovation and applaud new scientific developments, consumers tend to be more conservative and sceptical.
This is a well-known phenomenon, called the halo effect. The more often a product is demonstrated, the better people like it, even though everything else may be exactly the same. This effect can probably be explained in terms of evolution: if you eat something new and survive, you are less afraid of eating it again.
"It is precisely because of the halo effect that food producers should be careful about promoting all the new aspects that could lead to uncertainty. If they start to use HPP and PEF, it is better to say how much better the flavour is than that it is processed in a new way," says Veflen Olsen.
Different value segments need different arguments
Consumers can be divided into segments, according to their basic values. Two value segments in particular stood out in this study:
1. Hedonism – those who are more concerned about well-being and enjoyment than anything else
2. Benevolence – those who are concerned about the welfare of their family and friends.
"We found that people’s arguments for choosing HPP and PEF products varied between these segments," says Veflen Olsen, adding: "Not surprisingly, the enjoyment lovers were most interested in a better flavour and preferred arguments such as "an apple juice that tastes and smells like fresh apples" and "keeps the natural flavours". The benevolent ones, on the other hand, are more concerned about health and environmental considerations. The important arguments for them are "uses less water and energy", "careful processing", "no additives" and "high in vitamins".
Taste before buying
Giving consumers information about new technologies can be a two-edged sword.
"People say they want information, but the more we talk about new technology, the less they want to buy. That is because the information given to them makes them focus on areas they had not originally thought about," explains Veflen Olsen.
The solution is to emphasise the products’ positive qualities and to give consumers the chance to try them. The surest way to gain acceptance is the consumers’ own positive experience. Food producers who want to convince consumers that their product is better should let people try it. If people like the way it tastes, many of the doubts will start to disappear.
"Even when people start by giving the impression that they are negative to technological methods, when they get the chance to taste the products, and find out that they taste better than the alternatives, there is a much greater chance that they will buy," says Veflen Olsen.
As well as offering samples to taste, it is important to get information out at an early stage of the introduction. Uncertainty can create prejudice, which is much harder to deal with once attitudes have been established.
"This is about instilling positive attitudes to a technology. GMOs are an example of a technology that is struggling to gain acceptance, while organic production has managed far better," concludes Veflen Olsen.
The studies of consumer attitudes to new processing technologies are part of an EU project called NovelQ. Universities and research institutions in Norway, Denmark, Hungary and the Netherlands have participated.
HPP: High-pressure processing is a method for processing food products without using heat. The food is exposed to high pressure, which makes most micro-organisms inactive by destroying cell membranes and other parts of their cells.
PEF is another method for processing food without using heat. Electrical impulses are sent through the food. The effect, once again, is to destroy parts of the cells of micro-organisms, thus rendering them inactive. PEF can only be used on fluids.