Wanting the world on a plate

European culture’s increasing diversity is reflected in the continent’s eating habits, which have changed beyond recognition during the past 25 years

Consumers throughout Europe are increasingly willing to adapt their diets as their attitudes and feelings towards different cuisines change. There is ample evidence for this, as European society becomes more cosmopolitan and the constant influx of migrants from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds exposes Europeans to a vast pool of different diets and culinary traditions.

There has been an explosion in the popularity of ethnic restaurants in recent years; for instance, in the UK there were three times as many Indian restaurants in 2001 than in 1980. Most consumers’ first experience of a new cuisine will be through such restaurants. However, new dietary habits are entering the mainstream as the immigrant population becomes more integrated into society. Many children grow up in multicultural families or environments and this has repercussions on their perceptions of food and drinks.

Another consequence of this changing society is the increasingly easy availability of exotic ingredients through mass retail channels. Many products that would only have been available in specialist shops ten years ago, such as plantains and sun-dried tomatoes, can now be found in most supermarkets. The availability of a wider variety of ingredients, together with consumers’ greater exposure to various countries through demographic changes, the restaurant trade and affordable foreign travel, means European consumers have a greater tendency to include aspects of other cultures’ traditional diets into their own eating patterns.

The ways in which they choose to do so are governed by several influences. These can be matters of convenience, health-related concerns, or simply the search for more pleasurable foods. But a new report from Datamonitor, Food and Drinks Beliefs, shows that underlying consumers’ views on all these matters is a set of beliefs regarding foods and their properties.

The pan-European survey examines the beliefs that different consumer segments hold about different types of diets. This includes how important they perceive religion, culture, health and ethics to be. It also looks at how often aspects of these diets are included in consumers’ everyday eating habits to determine which beliefs about food and drinks are most influential.

Datamonitor says that for six out of the eight studied diet types, health-related beliefs emerge as the most relevant in the eyes of consumers. This is the case for all diets, except for the North African, Middle-Eastern and Persian diets (which were counted as one diet type) and the Indian diet. On the other hand, the Mediterranean and vegetarian diets have the highest level of health-related beliefs and are the diets that are most frequently included in everyday eating habits.

Consumers’ beliefs about different types of diets can offer marketers an insight into the best way to position food and drinks products. A type of food that consumers associate with a particular diet could be targeted at these consumers by highlighting properties that tie into their beliefs. This could be used to increase the frequency with which consumers introduce new products into their diets.

Datamonitor says that the promotion of the Japanese diet, which consumers perceive to be slightly less healthy than the Mediterranean diet, also represents a significant opportunity for marketers. However, its rate of inclusion is still low at an average of 18.5 per cent (compared to the Mediterranean diet’s 55.4 per cent). Japanese food is particularly attractive to healthconscious consumers because of its high fish content. This means there is also significant opportunities for other diets with high fish content, such as the Scandinavian diet.

The beliefs held by young families are different to the majority of other consumers. Datamonitor says that their beliefs regarding health are generally held with less conviction than for other consumer groups, and they attribute a greater importance to culture.

This can be partly explained by several factors. Young families are fuelled by the need to provide their children with a healthy diet, so they tend to be more informed on the health properties of foods than those families without children. This means that health-related concerns tend to leave the realm of belief to enter that of knowledge. But parents are also keen to pass on their family culture, including culinary or gastronomic values, to their children. This is why cultural beliefs are more important for this consumer group.

Manufacturers and retailers have to take action to address consumer concerns, both to maximise the potential gains from this trend, and, more importantly, to prevent consumers’ fears from severely damaging their market. Datamonitor believes that improving consumer trust is mandatory – through better information campaigns, transparent policies on the preparation of the product and on the quality and safety of its ingredients.

The sector also needs to prove to consumers that their concerns over food safety and disease are being taken seriously. This may mean enforcing changes all the way along the supply chain, and working with certification bodies to create a reliable, recognisable authority which is worthy of consumers’ faith.

Factfile is edited by Caroline Parry. Lawrence Gould, consumer markets analyst of Datamonitor, contributed

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