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Specific messages to teach consumers to eat a varied diet

Variety is important, but do we actually know what it means? Not quite, according to a new study from Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University. The study sends an important message to the Danish Health and Medicines Authority and other authorities and organisations that consumers find it difficult to judge what constitutes a varied diet.

2016.06.27 | Julia Rolsted Stacey

The hot meal in the cafeteria, various salads and other trimmings are all important aspects when we evaluate how satisfied we are with our lunch. This is the result of a study conducted by Pernille Haugaard at Aarhus BSS as part of her PhD project. Here, Pernille Haugaard has explored what cafeteria users at an ordinary workplace find important when they buy their lunch at work.

In the study, 71 consumers had to evaluate how satisfied they were with their lunch, which they selected from a buffet.  Afterwards, they would answer questions about what they thought about their lunch plate, and whether they thought the meal represented a varied diet.

Variety equals satisfaction

“Variety is particularly important to the majority of consumers when it comes to evaluating how satisfied they are with their lunch,” says Pernille Haugaard.

This concerns both the individual meal but also various meals throughout the day. Variety is especially important in relation to how satisfied someone is with his or her diet in general.

“Consumers know that variety is very important when it comes to being healthy, and it is also on the list of official dietary recommendations from the Danish Health and Medicines Authority,” says Pernille Haugaard.

The results of the study showed that consumers perceive variety as a broad concept.

According to Pernille Haugaard, the Danish Health and Medicines Authority, other authorities and organisations need to consider specific messages when they develop campaigns or send a message to consumers encouraging them to eat a varied diet.

“Consumers need to be told what variety actually means - both in relation to individual meals, meals during the day and the overall diet. Otherwise, there is great risk that the consumers fail to understand the message correctly,” says Pernille Haugaard.

Measuring variety objectively

In her study, Pernille Haugaard and her team explored what consumers actually perceive to be a varied meal. They measured variety objectively by counting the number of dishes on each plate. Chicken curry constituted one dish, mixed salad another, etc.

The number of ingredients belonging to each food group was also counted. So were colours, the size of the different components as well as the shapes - was the food grated or sliced, were the eggs cut in half, was something oblong or was the food served in one piece.

According to Pernille Haugaard, the study rests on thoroughly prepared work. Using photos of meals when measuring objective variety is a new method. It has great potential in future studies as it brings the least amount of disruption to the participants.

Three decision rules explain our choices

The study showed that consumers typically select their lunch according to three types of decision rules:

  1. Wanting to choose as many dishes as possible
  2. Choosing food based on sensory characteristics - dishes that match in taste and colour
  3. Choosing lunch based on nutritional content - wanting a balanced meal with a good distribution between carbohydrates, proteins and fat.

Consumers who base their choice on decision rule number 1 stand out. From an objective point of view, they do not choose any more dishes, but they  believe that their lunch is more varied.

According to Pernille Haugaard, one explanation could be that consumers who choose the most food also make their mind up the fastest, while consumers whose plate represents a good balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fat might be more concerned with what they want to eat. This probably also goes for consumers who consider colour and taste combinations.

“Specific messages increase consumers’ ability to understand and act on what it means to have a varied diet. If the aim is to get consumers to eat more varied food, we need offer consumers specific advise regarding the actual meal,” Pernille Haugaard explains.

Facts about the study

In the study, participants had to take part in 8-10 lunches out of 31 during three months. They had to come to the cafeteria and select their own food from a buffet. When they had filled up their plate, the plate was photographed. Afterwards, the meal was measured according to objective measurements - number of dishes, food groups, colours, size and shape. When the participants had finished their lunch, they filled out an online survey regarding the perceived variety of their lunch. The majority of the participants were highly educated.

Further information

Pernille Haugaard
The Department of Management
Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University
Tel.: +45 26 59 89 15
E-mail: pernilleh@mgmt.au.dk

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