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Consumer Behavioral Shifts: Understanding Consumer Response to Acrylamide & Other Food/Health Issues

April 30, 2003

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This is an executive summary of qualitative research conducted by Cogent Research on behalf of the International Food Information Council (IFIC). The overarching goal of the research was to understand consumer response to recent media reports about the formation of the compound acrylamide during the food cooking process. To achieve this objective, we investigated consumers’ knowledge of the issue, and any changes in habits as a result of concerns about acrylamide. To broaden our understanding of the motivating factors behind behavioral shifts, we also sought to uncover the types of food or health issues and information that are the root cause for consumers to make sudden dietary changes.

Cogent Research conducted a total of six groups in three markets. In each market, we conducted two groups—one among those who were unaware of acrylamide and one among those who had heard at least a little about the issue. All participants were recruited to provide a demographically diverse mix of general consumers who met the acrylamide awareness requirement. The groups were conducted on April 24, 2003 (Merriam, KS), April 29, 2003 (Cambridge, MA), and April 30, 2003 (Marina Del Ray, CA). Each session was approximately two hours in length.

While the findings of focus groups provide useful insights into a particular subject and allow researchers to unearth unanticipated key issues, it is important to note that the results of focus groups are not statistically valid. In other words, one cannot project the findings of a single group, or for that matter, multiple focus groups to the entire population.


Behavioral Shifts Toward Food & Ingredients

Avoidance of specific foods or ingredients is universal. All participants have removed or limited their intake of at least one item (although items mentioned were generally a group or type of food such as carbohydrates or fatty foods). The most commonly mentioned items that participants are avoiding are those that have received intensive and long-standing media coverage that has been validated by other sources (and/or common sense). The ability of new or isolated “health scares” to create an impact seems limited unless the story relates to a specific and current threat (e.g., meat recalls).

Motivating Factors. In general, the reduction or avoidance of any food is mainly the result of (or threat of) a definite and immediate personal negative outcome. In other words, avoidance is warranted in cases where people have a disease (e.g., diabetes) where nutrition plays a role in overall health or disease management, or where people are adversely affected by a food substance (e.g., allergies, general malaise, weight gain).

Food avoidance is much less frequently the result of anxiety over the potential for longer-term health problems. A few participants with a family proclivity toward certain diseases are attempting to lessen their risk through dietary means; however, some with a genetic predisposition to a health problem admitted they do not always eat the way they should to lessen the risks. One notable exception to this is parents. Although not concerned for themselves, they have a strong desire to protect their children. Thus, many of the participants with children are restricting their children’s intake of foods they feel have little nutritional value or can negatively impact long-term health (e.g., fried foods, fast foods). To the extent they avoid the foods themselves, it is mainly to set a good example for their children.

Credible Information Sources. In many cases, knowledge of what foods to avoid comes from commonly asserted knowledge or personal observation rather than outside sources. Almost nobody questions “common sense” information on nutrition and health. Nor do they seem to question information that contains personally verifiable knowledge (e.g., weight loss from carbohydrate reduction).

Believable outside information sources are most often a physician, health magazine, or family member/friend. In terms of providing sound nutritional advice, physicians and family members have a distinct advantage over media sources or literature. Health magazines are generally regarded as a competent source whereas there is less enthusiasm for books, which are very divisive. While some participants (especially those reducing foods for weight management reasons) cite books as a competent source because they “have to tell the truth to get published,” others clearly discount that idea.

News reports (especially television news) are mentioned less frequently as a source of information, and when cited, tend to be mentioned in conjunction with another source. That said, participants are very aware of health and food-related news reports (e.g., trans-fat and alar), and these do make an impact in consumers’ minds even though it does not always result in changes to their consumption behavior. This is most likely because news reports are not the most trusted source, unless they confirm “common-sense” or other long-standing health/nutrition associations, or involve a current (and short-term) health warning (e.g., meat recalls). News stories heralding new health information often pass by consumers due not only to the high number of new “health risks,” but also the number of conflicting stories. Many participants made note of the fact that the continuous changing of information on health and food makes them less likely to believe the stories they hear, if they even notice them in the first place.

Consumer Response to Acrylamide

Overall Impact. Regardless of their awareness of past media coverage on acrylamide, most consumers are not concerned about this issue, despite the fact that cancer is a serious concern for many participants. This lack of concern remained low among most participants even after extensive discussions and education (from IFIC’s Acrylamide Q&A and a USA Today article published October 7, 2002, Can French Fries Give You Cancer?).

Indeed, the vast majority of consumers say they would not change (or have not changed) their eating behavior as a result of hearing about acrylamide. The key exception to this seems to be pregnant women or nursing mothers who have a heightened awareness and concern about most food/health issues. However, even they admit that once they are done nursing, they will most likely resume consumption of foods associated with acrylamide. Parents and grandparents also indicate elevated levels of concern for their children/grandchildren, although they are not concerned for themselves. It is worth noting that a small number of consumers have changed their eating habits due to acrylamide, but a few of these have not been able to sustain their behavior.

There are some key reasons for the overall lack of concern (which results in a lack of motivation to change eating habits). They include:

    1. Most consumers have become highly skeptical of research studies in general given past experience with contradictory studies. There is a strong negative opinion about the fact that these type of reports are continually being changed (e.g., one week something is good, the next it is bad), which limits the ability of any new “health scare” to have a significant impact.
    2. In particular, until something passes the test of time (that is, not contradicted over time, but in fact, confirmed by other studies), many will not take note. Participants feel it is too early to be concerned about this issue, since the current studies are inconclusive. That said, a few in each group said they would keep their eye on the issue to see what further studies find. There was some backlash against the ever-constant stream of new food/health threats, with some participants indicating there is always something new to be concerned about, and if they cut out all of the foods that contained potential health risks, there would be nothing left to eat. In this case in particular, “aware” consumers feel they would have heard more about acrylamide if it were a serious risk.
    3. The sensationalism that surrounds this type of story undermines credibility. In this case in particular (Can French Fries Give you Cancer), but in other cases as well, the way the media hype stories in order to get and retain viewers limits the credibility of the research and the real impact on health.
    4. Many have already changed their behavior and reduced consumption of those foods that have been most closely associated with acrylamide (french fries, snack foods) for other health reasons; thus, they see no additional reason to change. Even when expanded to other foods such as cereal and bread, most participants indicated they would be unlikely to make a shift. Only a couple of aware participants have made any changes to their diet as a specific reaction to acrylamide.

Misconceptions. Consumers (especially those in the “aware” groups) often confuse acrylamide with other health issues; in particular, the trans-fat issue that resulted from widespread media coverage about fast food outlets changing their oil in order to make french fries healthier. Even after reading the Q&A, consumers often take away very different information or confuse it with trans-fat, oil in general, cooking techniques, or other issues. While many consumers (knowledgeable and unknowledgeable) do understand that acrylamide is a naturally occurring compound that is the result of cooking or heating, there are still a number of participants who feel it is only found in processed foods, not in whole foods made in the home.

Credible Information Sources. A few consumers were fairly vocal about their feelings that government agencies are not always entirely forthcoming about the health risks associated with specific issues because of special interest groups and lobbyists. Interestingly, it seems the only way to assure some consumers that the government is unbiased is to definitively indicate that a food is “bad.” Only in this way do some participants indicate they are willing to believe that the government is an unbiased party. However, other consumers express confidence in government agencies, and defend their role in ensuring thorough research and evaluation.

Medical professionals also face some criticism on health/nutrition-related issues, with some participants indicating doctors are not up to date on all the newest issues. That said, many participants indicated they would avoid foods if their doctor told them to. It is interesting to note that some medical associations (AMA in particular) also face a certain level of distrust, with participants indicating they are also subject to outside influences and lobbying.

Indeed, money is often seen as the key motivator in many of these types of studies. It fuels the process throughout the entire chain. Scientists are seen to make decisions about what to study based on their need for funding. Charitable organizations and industry alike are believed to support studies that deliver results they want to hear. And, government is oftentimes believed to be withholding information from the public in order to alleviate any negative economic effect.

While news reports and friends/family are most often cited as the original source for new health-related information, almost all participants indicated they would use the Internet if they wanted to get more information about acrylamide (or other new health “stories”). The Internet is considered the key place to get information, although most consumers recognize that the information found is subject to the website’s biases, and needs to be taken with caution if it is not validated in multiple places.

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