Healthy fried chicken?

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Obesity Initiative at UGA

Food manufacturers and marketers gathered in Athens this spring to learn how to better market healthy food choices to Americans. This marks the third conference the University of Georgia’s Obesity Initiative has hosted for food manufacturers. Working with industry to improve the healthy choices in American grocery stores and restaurants has become an important hallmark of the initiative’s work.

“We need to consider the entire value chain involved with obesity and all the actors within that chain if we are going to reduce the prevalence of obesity, and the food industry is just one of those actors that play a major role,” said Diane Hartzell, the initiative’s assistant director.

Food marketers and manufacturers are often deterred from making healthier foods because Americans have repeatedly failed to buy them when they hit the supermarket shelves.

“I have had any number of people in the industry tell me in frustration, ‘Wicker, we can make healthy choice foods, but consumers will not buy them because there is a perception that they will not taste good,’” said Louise Wicker, a professor of food science and technology in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the UGA Obesity Initiative’s Obesity and Food Ingredients team leader.

“Taste, cost and convenience are the major drivers of food purchase,” she continued, “and we are working to identify the barriers to creating healthy foods that consumers will purchase, especially for the moderate- to low-income consumer.”

Food marketing guru Howard Moskowitz, who was hosted by the UGA Obesity Initiative and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, told the industry representatives that adjusting their marketing strategies would help them sell more healthy products.

Moskowitz is a market researcher and psychophysicist who is well regarded in business, marketing and academic circles for his pioneering use of data to improve marketing techniques and change consumer behavior. He’s the author of 16 books on data and marketing. A TED Talk featuring his work—“Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce”—has been viewed more than 5 million times.

He argues that food marketers should no longer try to market to American consumers as one large monolithic group. Instead, they should work to market their goods to groups of consumers based on the ways they prioritize healthfulness, cost, flavor and convenience.

“We’ve been using one message for everyone,” he said. “Our job is to find out what the segments are, find out what they want and sell them based on what they need to hear.”

Wicker worked with Moskowitz on a recent study to see if the way healthy foods are marketed affect their success. The College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the UGA Obesity Initiative and the UGA Office of the Vice President for Research funded the study.

They asked people questions from 400 possible combinations of silos and elements about a theoretical fried-chicken-like product that was manufactured in a healthier manner. They rated how likely they were to buy the product based on a one sentence vignettes, like, “The oven-baked chicken has the flavor of fried but with less fat.”

They found that consumers fall into a few very distinct groups and that the secret to marketing healthy foods, or any food really, is to direct the marketing messages to these specific consumer groups.

Three consumer groups were identified for the fried-chicken-like product. Convenience buyers will try a healthy new product if its convenience benefits are touted, while diehard health nuts would rather hear about the healthy aspects of the product. There is also a group of consumers with an almost philosophical connection with traditionally prepared foods, which may not be healthy.

The latter group of folks won’t buy “healthier” versions of their favorite comfort foods on principal. There’s no point in marketing healthier products to them, Moskowitz said, but food manufacturers also shouldn’t let them define the market.

Moskowitz and Wicker hope to use their initial work with food marketing and consumer segmentation as the foundation of a National Science Foundation research center proposal that will establish partnerships between the private food industries and the University of Georgia and Louisiana State University, with the goal to improve health and wellness and curb obesity.

Wicker is retiring from UGA this summer to accept the position of director of the School of Nutrition and Food Sciences in the LSU Ag Center.  She will lead the center site effort at LSU, in individual and collaborative projects with Don Harn, a GRA Distinguished Investigator and professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Debbie Murray, the associate dean for extension and outreach in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, who will lead the satellite center site effort from UGA.

— Merritt Melancon, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences