isi, the Institute for Sensory Research and Innovation Consulting, is testing sustainable products for the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen that are based on algae instead of meat. The transnational study, launched this week, is designed to help develop sustainable products that appeal to consumers. "Many people want to buy environmentally friendly products, but are sceptical about new taste experiences. The research team would like to know how we can change products in such way that they are attractive to consumers whilst at the same time reducing overall meat consumption", explains Alexandra Kraus, isi Associate Director.
Grasshopper burger, edible seaweed packaging, ravioli filled with algae instead of meat - that's the kind of product we might find on the shelves of our supermarket in future. Or will they just be left sitting there. Businesses are already offering their customers ever more sustainable purchasing options, with less packaging, for example, or products with no animal components. This is good for the environment and supports people who care about animal welfare and sustainable consumption.
Fear of the Unknown
Unfortunately, products like this often have to struggle with a multitude of problems. For one thing, a lot of people are fundamentally sceptical about new taste experiences: we can assume that about half of the population is food neophobic (from the Greek "neo" = new, "phobos" = fear). Researchers have been researching food neophobia for a long time and trying to find out under what circumstances it is particularly pronounced. Besides this fundamental attitudinal barrier, the most sustainable product will only end up in the shopping cart a second time if it tasted good the first time round.
How do you get people to try new products with unusual ingredients like algae and insects? And how do you make sure that the products taste so good that they regularly end up on the kitchen table?
Algae is part of the modern cuisine but still considered exotic.
These two questions are being examined in a project run by the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen with the support of isi. "Sustainability is beginning to play a more important role in sensory research," says Alexandra Kraus. "Our tests can show pathways forward for sustainable products."
The title of the research project is "Consumer acceptance of innovative foods based on algae protein considering neophobia". It is part of a comprehensive, interdisciplinary research programme titled Sustainability Transitions. The study is being conducted by Stephanie Grahl as part of her doctoral thesis under the direction of Prof. Daniel Mörlein. Both researchers are former members of staff at isi.
"We regularly combine academic and entrepreneurial expertise at isi," reports Alexandra Kraus. "isi has the practical know-how, and the university researchers challenge us with new questions. That promotes science and enhances our company immensely."
450 volunteers from Germany, France and The Netherlands are taking part in the study. "This will enable us to determine whether our results are independent of cultural background or whether there are regional differences in taste preferences," explains Stephanie Grahl.
The volunteers are asked to taste and evaluate six variations of filled pasta. The fillings contain three different amounts of algae in three different flavours. The research team wants to find out how the algae variations taste to consumers and to what degree they will accept the pasta.
In addition, the University of Göttingen team is working with its own sensory panel, an experienced group of product testers who are specially trained to render their impressions in very nuanced and objective wording. The combination of the data from both studies makes it possible to decode consumers' perceptions and to further develop the products.
The acceptance of algae pasta might differ from country to country.
Sustainable and Delicious
The results should provide information about which variants are particularly well received by consumers and therefore suitable for overcoming consumer neophobia. "The study will not result in a new algae pasta on the supermarket shelf. It’s more about getting to know consumers' wishes step by step and exploring what we need to consider when developing sustainable products," says Stephanie Grahl. This will pave the way in the food industry for future products and make it easier for consumers to access environmentally friendly products. Asked if the algae pasta could end up on her own dining table, Alexandra Kraus said "I find one variant really delicious and could well imagine eating it regularly. For me it is important to limit my meat consumption and to eat healthy and sustainable foods", she says.
photo credits (from top to bottom):zuzyusa (algae) / pixabay.com; davide ragusa (pasta) / unsplashcom
Dr. Fabienne Hübener is a freelance science journalist specializing in the senses and sensory research. She has been writing for us since 2017 and also likes to accompany our team with the video camera in the lab and at conferences.