The EU schools programme for fruit, vegetables and milk helps children develop healthy eating habits. Photo: Shutterstock
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How can you tell whether European policy is persuading consumers to make healthier choices when buying and eating food? The first prerequisite is that all behavioural researchers use a uniform approach for measurements and data processing. Researchers at Wageningen University & Research and their European colleagues are now developing a universal research method.
The natural sciences are highly standardised. The kilogram is the same everywhere, as are the metre and the second. But such harmonisation is far less common in the behavioural sciences. Researchers in different countries use different questionnaires and protocols. Each country has its own research methods and measurement scales, which makes it hard to compare measurements internationally. This means research results cannot always be used by policymakers. This applies as well to food consumer science – research aimed at better understanding consumers’ food purchasing and consumption behaviour.
COMFOCUS (Communities on Food Consumer Science) is a European project that aims to harmonise research methods in European food consumer science. The project, coordinated by Wageningen University & Research, started in March 2021 and the first calls for researchers will take place in May 2022. “Scientists need to use the same definitions and perform the same measurement and research procedures in laboratories”, says research manager Karin Zimmermann, who works for Wageningen Economic Research and is also the international project manager for COMFOCUS. “We are doing this to take consumer behaviour research to the next level.”
Healthy eating habits
Much food consumer research is aimed at figuring out how consumers can be persuaded to make healthier choices. This issue is also high up on the agenda of policymakers. The European Union has recently launched the two-year campaign HealthyLifestyle4All. As the title suggests, it aims to promote healthy lifestyles for all. The campaign links sport and active lifestyles with health, food and other policies, and is supported by national, regional and local authorities and international bodies. Another policy initiative is the EU schools programme for fruit, vegetables and milk, which helps children to develop healthy eating habits.
It is difficult to measure whether a campaign is successful in changing the behaviour of consumers
A lot of research is aimed at figuring out how consumers can be persuaded to make healthier food choices. Photo: Shutterstock
However, to date there is little scientific evidence to support these European policies. “Take the question of whether it tackles the problem of obesity”, says Zimmermann. “It is really difficult to measure whether a campaign like this is successful in changing the behaviour of European consumers. It is a Herculean task to examine all the different protocols that researchers use in various European studies of consumer behaviour and try to harmonise all that data retrospectively to explain why European consumers buy and eat what they do. That harmonisation should take place beforehand!”
Zimmermann cites the example of food neophobia, the fear and reluctance to try new foods that you aren’t familiar with. “Policymakers need to realise that some consumers have food neophobia, which means they will not adopt new foods aimed at getting them to eat more healthily. Take the protein transition. How do consumers feel about the use in food of new sources of protein such as insects? What determines their attitude and what fears play a role? Various countries are investigating this question, each in their own way, and that makes it difficult to compare their conclusions.”
Not only do the questionnaires used to measure consumer behaviour differ, but there is also considerable fragmentation in the application of new technology in food consumer science, says Zimmermann. Measurement scales differ throughout Europe, as do the protocols for using emerging technologies such as heart rate monitors, virtual reality goggles, eye trackers and galvanic skin response sensors. That too complicates comparisons of data.
It is far from uncommon for data that cost a lot of effort to collect to be stored unused after the specific project ends because colleagues in other countries can’t do anything with the data. “You can compare the situation in food consumer science with the continental railway network in the nineteenth century”, says Zimmermann. “Each country had its own railway gauge and you could never get passengers everywhere using the same train.”
If protocols are better aligned, it will be easier to compare datasets
Exercise and an active lifestyle are high up on the agenda of policymakers. Photo: Shutterstock
Zimmermann and her European colleagues want to make research data more efficient so that other researchers can incorporate it in new projects. “If European food consumer scientists come up with more clear-cut research results, European policymakers will be able to take decisions founded on science and pursue a more evidence-based policy for promoting healthier dietary choices. Policymakers need simulations and predictive models that allow them to assess the potential support for their policies and optimise their approach.”
Research data should be FAIR
COMFOCUS also wants to pave the way for the use of data science. Researchers around the world who use large data files are increasingly using search engines to collect data. That means the research data must be FAIR: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable. Any scientist must be able to find the data from a study funded by public money. There must be protocols stipulating who has access to what data. There must also be a code showing how the data can be reused in new analyses. And harmonised data will be more reusable. One of the aims of COMFOCUS is to make sure that data is FAIR in food consumer science as well.
Zimmermann: “If protocols for the execution of research are better aligned, it will be easier to compare datasets with one another. That will help us analyse trends in time and also compare consumers with one another. This will be possible not just at the national level but also between regions or groups, or between different countries in Europe. The biggest advantage is that it will be easier to enrich the data by adding new datasets – for example containing information from GPS or supermarket cash tills. This will broaden our understanding of the attitudes and experiences of Dutch and European consumers and give our insights a more solid foundation. Consumers’ purchases and eating behaviour are driven not just by price but by many other factors too, and we will be in a much better position to characterise that.”
European research context
Communities on Food Consumer Science (COMFOCUS) addresses the following European policy challenge: Harmonising research methods within European food consumer science
Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Economic Research
Countries involved in Europe: Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and United Kingdom
Duration 2021 – 2025
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