Food that molds is a sign of “naturalness,” says University of Copenhagen study
14 Sep 2020 --- Danes may perceive food that spoils faster as being more natural, according to a new sociological study by the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).
The study observes a shift in attitudes about what characterizes “clean” foods over the past 40 to 50 years, which now favor naturality over sterility.
“We found that there were striking similarities in the way ‘naturalness’ was important for people’s assessments of food and dietary supplements across these studies. Much of what was once considered impure, such as soil, mold, bacteria and dust, is now seen as pure because it can signal naturalness – particularly when compared to overly sterile foods” Kia Ditlevsen, associate professor of UCPH’s department of food and resource economics tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
The analysis of two qualitative studies was done by Ditlevsen and her colleague Sidse Schoubye Andersen. The studies interviewed 69 Danes, showing that respondents were suspicious of foods treated to guarantee lengthy shelf lives.
In the past, food safety concerns were more widespread. Consequently, there was a perception that the greater the sterility, the better the quality, note the researchers.
By contrast, Danes in the study viewed a pesticide-sprayed and preservative-coated apple that never perishes as less desirable than one that spoils.
“What is objectively referred to as dirty is less frightening to us than apples which never rot. Similarly, having dirt under one’s nails has become a sign of health,” she says.
She continues: “The presence of soil was completely unthinkable in the understanding of ‘clean’ foods as many people feared bacteria and microorganisms at the time.”
“We are wild about the naturalness and visibility of what a product contains,” says adds.
To illustrate the trend, Ditlevsen refers to a Burger King advertisement from February:
“Many people associate Burger King with products that may not be quite all-natural, but do last a long time. To shift this perception, the fast food chain released large advertising banners with a picture of a moldy Whopper, their signature burger.”
Thus, the use of ingredients without unnecessary preservatives has become a branding strategy.
Predicting the next shift
Interviews in the study focused on ecology, local foods and dietary supplements, giving insights into consumer values.
Dirlevsen details that naturalness has become important for so many consumers’ due to their concerns about the climate, nature, the environment and food production.
Nevertheless, these perceptions are due to change over time, along with the events surrounding society, such as COVID-19.
“The coronavirus pandemic has intensified our focus on hygiene and sterility, in terms of disinfecting, distancing, etc. Perhaps sterility and control will once again become the focus of consumers with regards to food,” she says.
However, she maintains that it is too soon to draw any conclusions.
Despite the consumer view that foods susceptible to spoilage are better for you, Ditlevsen flags that food safety remains paramount.
The research warns that the trend should not be confused with not caring about whether or not our food has mold on it.
“We nearly take [food safety] for granted here in Denmark despite the problems that regularly arise,” says Ditlevsen.
Several of the study’s respondents described that they find the artificial sweeteners and dyes used in, for example, Coca-Cola Light, both “disgusting” and “unnatural.”
“We seek to cleanse our bodies of harmful chemicals. A growing number of people believe that this can be achieved by opting for foods that are perceived as pure and natural. Among other choices, this might include the purchasing of organics,” explains Ditlevsen.
The takeaway for food manufacturers is that consumers are concerned about modern food production methods. In particular, they are uncertain about the impact that pesticides and chemicals have on us, concludes Dirlevsen.
Edited by Missy Green
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