Despite a long history of reliance on fruits and vegetables as an indispensable source of energy, and the enduring variety and global abundance of these foods, people are not eating nearly enough produce. Most consumers understand the essential health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, yet bringing their behaviors into alignment with their understanding of what they should eat remains astonishingly difficult.
Health is the core benefit and foundation of produce marketing. As an increasing number of consumer goods aim at demonstrating “natural” traits and health benefits, it is certainly wise for the produce industry to continue educating the public on nutrition and promoting healthy eating as an essential cultural value. However, research has demonstrated that health-related messaging alone has limited impact on changing eating habits, and is even prone to reactions of defensiveness.
Beyond serving as an instrument of good health, food (including fruits and vegetables) holds complex and important connections to cultural and social contexts, personal identity and emotional experiences5. Therefore, messaging that mostly approaches fruits and vegetables as a tool for good health neglects the many other legitimate ways in which people think about and interact with food. The question that remains is, if health messaging alone is not an adequate driver of consumer choice, then what can marketers do to complement health-related information about fruits and vegetables?
PMA’s recent original research, “Beyond Health: Promoting Produce Consumption with an Understanding of the Experiences People Want from Food”, asks how marketers can change messaging to fit how people already feel and want to feel when they eat on different occasions.
In this project we studied behavioral drivers at the subconscious level and measured consumers’ subconscious associations with foods, including fruits and vegetables, using implicit association testing. Correlational analyses were used to investigate how these associations relate to food preferences on different eating occasions. The report describes the subconscious, experiential drivers of food choices, including a wide range of various fruits and vegetables. It also illuminates important insights from consumers’ implicit associations with foods.
The Automaticity of Eating
Health-related messaging relies on “rational” appeals – things people consciously think they should do or even want to do. However, on any given occasion, whether people are reaching for packaged food or produce, they are still looking to achieve an experience from that choice. That experience tends to be emotional, and thus driven by subconscious, automatic processes that can override conscious values and intentions to eat healthy foods.
Emotional states motivate consumers to turn to foods they believe will bring about a change in how they feel, whether that is relief from anxiety, a state of happiness when one is sad, or amusement to alleviate a feeling of boredom.
So, while consumers might want to be healthy eaters, the subconscious associations they hold with the experience of consuming different foods drive their preferences. As a result, when asked in a focus group or on a questionnaire how they feel about different foods, they might express positive views of fruits and vegetables because they have sincere desires and intentions to eat healthy foods. However, when making in-the-moment eating decisions, their behaviors may tell a different story about the associations they hold with foods and which associations drive their actual choices. Rather than fighting against these processes, it is important to understand how we as produce marketers can leverage these types of associations and emotional motivations to nudge behaviors.
Responses to the explicit questions, which are consistent across a broad range of demographic groups in the U.S., show that consumers are most likely to view fresh fruits and vegetables as “healthy” and “nutritious”, confirming that the health benefits of fruits and vegetables are well-ingrained in consumers’ minds. However, fruits and vegetables are not viewed in a way that suggests they have popular appeal from a more intangible, emotional standpoint.
Our results also confirm that messaging around healthfulness is a powerful foundation that should be built upon. However, healthful claims should not be relied on solely to drive consumption. Marketers, health professionals, government agencies and advocates interested in promoting produce consumption need to attend to those underlying experiences people are looking for when eating in different contexts, and how produce can fit those needs. By appealing to the experiences people are seeking at an implicit level, produce marketing can deliver on consumers’ broader needs and hold its own as a viable, healthy and enjoyable food choice.
The full report, available for members, describes the experiential drivers of food choices, including a wide range of various fruits and vegetables and illuminates important insights from consumers’ implicit associations with foods.