THE future of food may well hold concepts we can not yet even imagine but many of the same values that underpin the decision making consumers engage in today are likely to still be a driving force.
The major proviso: key consumer trends are not always what they appear.
Leading research from the University of Adelaide shows consumer motivations differ significantly from what labels and categories might suggest.
That poses a danger for producers and food retailers looking to meet consumer needs.
Being across what it might be consumers are thinking when they say things like ethical, local or genetically modified (GM) will be critical in the future, according to the University’s Professor Rachel Ankeny, whose expertise crosses social science, history and food studies.
Speaking at this year’s ABARES Outlook conference in Canberra, Prof Ankeny said when you drill down in any one of the hot categories currently on consumers’ lips, there are very different reasons for buying what appears to be the same thing.
Consumers might seek out an organic product, for instance, but concern about the environment comes a long way down the line in their reasons for doing that. Higher up is health, particularly their children’s, and nutrition.
Scientifically, it may not be the case but the consumer clearly equates being organic with being more nutritious.
“What our studies have found is this proxy exists whereby values stand in for other values,” Prof Ankeny said.
Another example - if a product claims no GM ingredients, people see it as a mark of food safety, of big multinationals not being involved and of more natural attributes.
So while current key consumer trends are likely to continue, the devil will be in the detail of what people mean by these trends, Prof Ankeny said.
One force guiding food choices is what Prof Ankeny refers to as the “complex calculus of trade-offs between values, including cost.”
This explains why dinner choices made through the week may be so very different to those on the weekend - convenience and cost the big driver from Monday to Friday and unique and special a driver on the weekend.
The label ‘local’ is also a “huge basket of values,” according to Prof Ankeny.
“Many consumers we interviewed ‘bought local’ because it’s convenient. They may actually be buying from a one of the duopoly supermarkets that happens to be on their corner,” she said.
Local also turned out to be a perception of food coming from outside Australia not being as clean and safe, rather than the desire to support local agriculture or businesses.
“Further, our studies found there are lots of negative perceptions around food made using science and technology. It’s scary to the consumer,” Prof Ankeny said.
That is why they won’t buy GM, rather than opposition to the actual science.
Interestingly, research on labelling is showing that while people say they want total transparency, clearer, very accurate labels incite a lack of trust.
When a label says “70 per cent Australian sourced” it throws up questions about the other 30pc - what exactly is being “hidden”.
Likewise, nutritional labelling tends to overwhelm.
“Many consumers are telling us they have given up on labels,” Prof Ankeny said.
“Instead, they find someone they trust, be it their local butcher or a neighbour, for information.”
The bottom line for food supply chains?
Think harder about a higher level of engagement with consumers on values and beliefs.
Ultimately, consumers are looking for a shorthand way of looking for a mark of quality.