Tell Me What You Buy, and I'll Tell You Who You Are

Using an Indirect Method to Find out more About the Image of "Functional Foods"*

What sort of housewife buys only canned food? Would you rather like to go have coffee with a man who fills his shopping cart with frozen pizza and canned beer or with someone who carefully chooses his lettuce, vegetables, and fine exotic foods when shopping? While standing in line at the checkout counter most of us can't help judging others throughwhat they have bought.

Anne Arvola and Liisa Lähteenmäki, from VTT Biotechnology in Espoo, Finland and Marjaana Lindeman and Marieke Saher from the Department of Applied Psychology at the University of Helsinki made use of this very human trait to indirectly measure the image of functional foods.

The researches knew that by directly asking customers their opinions about particular products, the customers would divulge only a part of what they really thought. Arvola and her colleagues came up with a clever solution; the participants were asked to judge the imaginary shoppers based on the contents of their shopping lists. The 471 subjects taking part in the experiment were given one of 8 different shopping lists. Each of these lists consisted of five background items which had either a quite positive health image, e.g. apples, whole grain bread, or ice cream with vegetable fats, or which had a rather neutral or comparably less healthy image, e.g. marmalade, cornflakes, and cream cheese.

Three test products - either functional foods (yogurt with probiotics, omega 3-eggs, and fruit juice with added calcium and vitamins) or similar conventional products (standard strawberry yogurt, normal eggs, fruit juice without any supplements). Additionally the participants were told the sex of the owner of the respective shopping list.

On the basis of the information, the participants judged the imaginary shoppers using a list of 66 adjective pairs on a seven-point scale. In addition, the questionnaire contained items tapping several psychological attitudes, demographic variables, the perceived healthiness of list items, and willingness to try a selection of functional foods.

  • The raters' perception of functional food consumers proved to be both positive and negative. Functional foods purchasers were seen as more innovative, experimentative, and interested in novelties on the one hand, but as less friendly than purchasers of the correspondent conventional foods on the other. Those who according to their list bought mainly less healthy foods were clearly judged as more disciplined if those lists also included functional foods. Discipline is a positive feature that was otherwise only attributed to the healthy food consumers.
  • The ratings were not only influenced by characteristics of the presumed buyers but also of the raters. Purchasers were rated differently depending on the raters' positive bias towards natural, organic, or unprocessed foods not containing additives. In contrast the raters' food neophobia or health interest did not show up in their judgements. The more the raters were interested in natural foods the more they were convinced that people who prefer conventional foods are more friendly than purchasers of functional products. These raters perceived functional foods in a rather negative sense since they felt functional foods were closer to unnatural foods than the tested conventional products. This tendency was especially strong in women.
  • The raters' gender was another feature that had quite an important influence on the judgements. Women in general proved to be more prone to judge others - especially other women - according their shopping habits. This led the researchers to conclude that food and dietary styles are more important in influencing the impressions and sense of sexual identity in women than they are in men - a finding that has also been suggested by the results of other studies. Interestingly, both men and women had a positive image of women who bought healthy food, whereas men did not have a more positive image of imaginary male shoppers with healthy food lists. Rather, they judged these men as being comparatively unfriendly.

As similar results were obtained in both the preliminary and in the main study, the "shopping list" method was found to be a viable and reliable method for unearthing latent associations related to functional food users. The results clearly illustrate the sorts of hidden social messages that may be carried in functional food products and thus deliver valuable tips for the development and marketing of such products.

*Functional foods are ordinary foods that have components or ingredients incorporated into them to give them a specific medical or physiological benefit, other than a purely nutritional effect (UK Government's Food Advisory Committee)


VTT Biotechnology,

Espoo, Finland

Liisa Lähteenmäki

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