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UKC Study shows that consumers buy organic produce for taste, not ethics

Taste and health benefits have been found to be the key motivators for buying organic produce, according to new research conducted at The University of Kent.

The paper, entitled The Organic Food Premium: A Local Assessment in the UK, analyses the organic shopping habits of consumers in Canterbury to help discover their price thresholds and rationale for buying organic foods.

Dr Adelina Gschwandtner from the School of Economics surveyed 104 individuals about their organic food preferences and buying habits after they had left one of three major supermarket chains. They were asked about their willingness to pay more money for organic food and their reasons for doing so, or not doing so.

Shoppers usually claim they buy organic food because it is environmentally friendly and has higher standards of animal welfare, when in fact, the data collected from the survey showed that ‘selfish’ reasons such as improved taste and health benefits are in fact the strongest drivers to buying organic food.

Consumers enjoy organic food products both due to their so called ‘non-use values’, says Gschwandtner, “such as environmentally friendliness and higher animal welfare, and due to their so called ‘use-values’ such as better health and better taste.

“What my study shows is that even though consumers claim that they buy organic food products because of their ‘non-use values’ in reality they seem to buy them mainly (but not only) because of their ‘use-values’ such as health and taste.

“There are several explanations for this gap between what consumers say and what they do. One of them is called ‘social desirability bias’. Consumers get a good feeling or a ‘warm glow’ from giving a social desirable answer and this is why they sate that they buy organic mainly due to environmental reasons. In reality, the driving force behind purchases seems to be their perceived health benefits and better taste.

“My findings are supported by several other studies from Europe. This is not just an UK phenomenon.”

InQuire asked Dr Gschwandtner whether organic food actually has any beneficial health benefits for consumers; she replied that the scientific evidence has been “Traditionally mixed.” However, more recently research performed by scientist from the University of Newcastle using large number of observations (meta-analysis) showed the health benefits for organic milk and meat when compared to conventional products.”

The survey conducted by Dr Gschwandtner also showed that consumers were spending an average of £3.84 of their total shopping bill on organic produce, around 26% of the total. This is higher than many previous studies have found, suggesting that attitudes towards purchasing organic food are changing.

“The rise in popularity for organic food is probably directly linked with the food scandals in the past years and with the concerns that consumers have with respect to their health and the one of their families. But again, a perceived better taste and other reasons contribute to this rise too.”

When asked why consumers were willing to pay more for organic items such as milk, chicken and apples; most consumers stated that they bought items for ‘non-personal’ benefits, such as the belief that organic food is environmentally friendly and that meat is produced in more ethically acceptable ways.

Buyers were asked about how much of a willingness they have to pay for organic produce most responses were at an average of a 13% premium on non-organic products. However, in reality the most consumers actually paid an average of 9% more for organic products.

The findings could help supermarkets, organic food producers and the government reconsider how they advertise organic produce, in order to appeal to buyers by promoting taste and health benefits, rather than focusing on the environmental benefits of organic food, as is usually promoted.

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