Researchers examine consumer eating choices
The book examines what draws us to make certain food choices over others

Researchers examine consumer eating choices

Gill McShane

Dr Emma_Jayne_Abbots
Why We Eat, How We Eat co-editor Dr Emma-Jayne Abbots

​Food can be a source of great comfort, but also tension and disquiet; making all of our decisions around eating potentially difficult and confusing

We eat certain foods due to a wide combination of influential factors and our choice is certainly not solely based on price, according to a new academic publication.

Why We Eat, How We Eat: Contemporary Encounters Between Foods and Bodies’ explores the intersection between food and bodies and examines how eating draws together people, places and objects that may never tangibly meet, such as overseas growers and suppliers with the end consumer.

“There’s no one magic factor in purchasing decisions,” explains Dr Emma-Jayne Abbots, a political and economic anthropologist and lecturer at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, who co-edited the publication with Dr Anna Lavis, of the University of Birmingham (UK).

“It’s about your cultural upbringing, your location, your knowledge of food, the aesthetics of how food is presented, the price and other influential factors, such as the government encouraging you to buy national products, or celebrity chefs playing their role. There are various voices and factors.”

Rather than focusing on what people eat or the symbolic meaning of food, Dr Abbots says the book takes a consumer perspective and examines what draws us to make certain choices over others, and what informs and shapes those decisions.

“Making choices is partly an interplay between the desire of what people want to eat and what they feel they should be eating, as well as the influence of a whole range of institutions and actors (from the government to retailers, and the media to public health authorities) and consumers’ own discourses,” she states.

“This sometimes gives rise to tension between what they want and should eat. What we’ve shown in the book is making these choices can be quite fraught. We increasingly worry about what we’re eating and whether we’re eating the right thing – whether it should be organic because of pesticides, whether it’s safe, whether it will shorten or prolong our lives, whether it’s ethical. It can leave consumers feeling confused about what is best to eat. These anxieties and tensions can also arise surrounding eating with others too.”

Dr Abbots says consumers can also be quite fearful about unknown foods and what to do with them. “Freshness is a great marker of quality but if you’ve not come across a particular fruit or vegetable before how do you know if it’s fresh or ripe?,” she asks.

Due to that understandable level of ignorance, many consumers’ food purchasing decisions therefore come down to how “freshness” is packaged and marketed.

With local markets offering beautifully packaged, artisanal fresh food, Dr Abbots says the setting at the point of sale is important in inspiring consumer confidence in freshness.

“Fruit and vegetables are seen as more fresh if they are presented in sterilised and sanitised conditions and if they’re neatly laid out, clearly marked and packaged so others can’t feel or touch them,” she claims.

“Once produce is cleaned and washed somehow it seems more trustworthy. A lot comes down to how we’ve each learnt about food provenance – we don’t view food as dirty because the cleaning and packing process is out of our view. But there is also some security in that – consumers may not want to know what goes into those processes.”

Indeed, although the global reach of food today is extensive, at the same time the book reveals that consumers still experience food through the lens of being local. “Where you are located as well as your class, gender and generation will affect your aspirations and experience of eating food,” Dr Abbots claims.

However, those ideals and aspirations do not necessarily tie in neatly with the way people experience eating food, according to Dr Abbots. “For example, those desiring to eat grass-fed beef have found it to be far chewier and unlike like the beef they were used to eating and so they go off it,” she notes.

Ultimately, Dr Abbots says the industry needs to think of food in a far more holistic way. “Food is always thought of as political and social but it’s also material,” she states. “As consumers, we feel, smell and touch food and we make our judgement on that basis. In terms of buying fresh produce, it’s about whether it looks and feels safe, fresh and authentic, even if it’s not. It’s also about knowing what to do with it and how to treat it.”

The doctor further suggests the narrative behind food is more important to consumers’ purchasing decisions than public health messages. “Public health messages can often be contradictory,” she points out.

Consumers can feel confused about what to buy and eat if there are too many messages and they even rebel. We’re told by the government to eat 5, 7 or 8 portions of fruits and vegetables a day and retailers often encourage people to eat certain products.

“Sometimes people decide they’re not going to eat what they’re told to. So, those discourses and messages tend to fall away whereas the narrative behind food doesn’t.”

With consumers becoming increasingly savvy in terms of negotiating the different messages they receive, Dr Abbots says retailers and vendors of fresh produce must demonstrate their connection to the produce they are selling by creating a story around their offer and making consumers feel confident in their purchasing decisions.

“It’s about tapping into that sensibility and helping consumers make a decision by showing the grower, identifying exactly where the food has come from, showing a visual representation of where the food has come from or offering a travel guide of how the product’s processed,” she explains.

“Morrisons, for example, has done a good job of reconfiguring its produce departments to make them feel like a farmers’ market. That taps into consumers’ desire to feel connected to the growers of their food.”

Why We Eat, How We Eat: Contemporary Encounters Between Foods and Bodies has been named by sustainable food-based organisation Food Tank as one of the top 20 food books that entertain, inform, and reaffirm the importance of food and agriculture.

In May, 2015, Dr Abbots will publish a new book entitled ‘Careful Eating’ which will investigate why people care about what they eat and why they also care about what others eat, in the context of its importance from a public health perspective. 



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