Decisions, decisions: Why we buy the food we buy

- October 16, 2015


Do you know why you buy the food you buy? What helps you make your food choices?

You may think you know but one researcher at Dal’s Faculty of Agriculture is looking deeper at what influences your buying decisions.  

Ji Lu, a researcher with Agriculture’s Department of Business and Social Sciences, looks at why consumers buy the food they buy.

“I’m a consumer psychologist,” he explains. “I try to get a closer look into the minds of the consumers.”

Originally from China, Dr. Lu studied economics during his undergrad, and eventually completed a PhD from McGill University in Montreal where he studied consumer behaviuour. In 2011, Dr. Lu joined the NSAC (now Dalhousie University Faculty of Agriculture) as an instructor and researcher looking at consumer behavioir, eating behaviours and food choice.

The thinking and feeling behind food consumption

Dr. Lu explains that food provides us energy, nutrients, and palatable experience. He says our everyday food consumption is about much more than just nutrition and taste. Based on this, Dr. Lu tries to understand how everyday emotions, intuitive beliefs and consumption purpose influence what people eat.

“There are many things that influence food decisions,” Dr. Lu explains. “Emotion is one of the most powerful influencers. For example, if someone is sad, they aren’t as likely to eat broccoli. The social context of eating also influences eating habits — eating alone versus eating with others and eating out versus eating at home.”

In line with this emotion and social context influence on eating, one of his studies reveals a protective mechanism of home environment on healthy food consumption. The home is a privileged environment that nurtures healthy eating, in which healthier food choices trigger and are triggered by positive emotions. Dining in home-like environments, therefore, engenders better food choices.

"If the association between positive emotion and healthy food is built in the home," explains Dr. Lu, "then that environment can serve as a reminder of that association and motivate people to choose healthier food that can make them happier."

Lessons for learning

Extending this emotional reinforcement to the parental practice on children’s food consumption, Dr. Lu’s recent study suggests that using sweet and fatty foods as rewards may lead to obesity in children.

“When a young child isn’t cooperating, parents often offer small portions of treats to trade for obedience.” He warns. “Although it seems harmless, there could be long-term consequences, especially if these types of actions become a routine.”  

His study found that the children of parents who frequently used foods as incentive consumed more fat, sugar and calories in their daily life than those whose parents used them infrequently. People naturally prefer foods high in fat and sugar. When parents use these foods as rewards, it reinforces this natural preference. Over the long term, it associates the high fat/sugar food consumption with social-affective pleasure resulting from performing behaviuor desired by parents and this could lead to obesity.

Changing behaviours

Dr. Lu’s research focuses on behavioural change. Not only is it important to change the behaviours of individual consumers, but he is looking to change the behaviuors of stakeholders across the entire agriculture value chain.

“We are living in a society that is influenced by marketing,” Dr. Lu explains.  “The market trend of food products critically changes the face of agriculture activities, from farming, processing, retailing to consuming. The growing appetite for healthy, local and socially ‘fair’ products makes manufacturers and retailers increasingly take more social responsibilities.

However, even if consumers are sometimes willing to pay a higher price for these ‘ethical’ products, the market share remains small, limiting their ability to bring solution at scale to the societal challenges they target”

To scale up the “ethical” agri-food operation in the context of comparing local versus globalized food systems, Dr. Lu is currently investigating how consumers’ decisions is influenced by food product marketing strategies, including front-of-package information, branding and advertising.


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