If it looks like food, swims like food and quacks likes food, then probably it is food

Consumer response to duckweed as human food in fitting and misfitting meal context

The search for proteins is on.

Innovative ways to use animal derived protein can provide more proteins. In earlier blogposts I have already discussed fairly outlandish animal protein examples such as cultured meat or insects as protein source.

But that is not going to be enough. We also need to gain more high quality proteins from plant. These can be found in legumes (beans, peas and lentils), algae but also in duckweed. Duckweed quickly grows in ponds and contains a lot of high quality protein. In South Eastern Asian cuisines it is already used in some dishes. So if the European consumer accepts it, duckweed can become part of our protein sources.

If we want to make acceptable duckweed food, we need to answer some questions about consumer acceptance:

  • Should we just add duckweed anywhere? Or are there specific applications that people like better?
  • Should we emphasise that duckweed is sustainable and healthy? Or does that not really matter?
  • Do people have a spontaneous negative or positive responses to duckweed? And how will that influence their decision?

In interviews, consumers indicated that the idea of duckweed was new to them – and that the name sounded a bit weird for an edible plant as an animal name was included. Also some thought about stagnant ponds, which was not very appealing. But in general they thought it looked a lot like any green leafy vegetable. So there was no major concern; many could even see it as hip superfood. Since duckweed looked like a green leaf vegetable, it should be applied in dishes where green leafy vegetables are applied: pies and salads.

Based on this idea we created photos of duckweed meals that fit (salads and pie), and that did not fit the ideas of our interviewees (cakes and smoothies). We also added information on sustainability and health to the pictures. To measure spontaneous response next to normal survey questions we used the affect misattribution procedures where the pictures were flashed before participants for 1/3 of a second.

As in the interview, there were hardly any truly negative feelings about duckweed. Apparently people do not have big problems with seeing it as food.

Non-fitting meals were evaluated less positively than fitting meals; but sustainability and health information on its own did not matter. We did find that health and sustainability information made the evaluation of non-fitting meals even less positive. Apparently consumers were suspicious about other product properties in case where health and sustainability is advertised for a non-fitting duckweed dish.

Spontaneous response were hardly influence by fitting or non-fitting dishes and whether information was given or not. People with higher neophobia had more negative gut feelings. Negative gut feelings did in turn lead to less positive overall evaluation.

Thus unlike insects, consumers seem to have little problems with adopting duckweed in their diet. We need to find places where it fits, and we should not overemphasise sustainability and health as main arguments. But if we can get that done duckweed may well become part of our diet; and provide some additional protein for human consumption.

We are waiting for the first duckweed salad and pies to appear in catering and retail.

(Footnote: Since duckweed is not traditionally consumed in Europe, it needs to cleared for human consumption before large scale sensory trials and market introduction isallowed. This process was pending at the moment of publication of this blog.)

This study is reported in a paper is freely available to everyone. The full reference is de Beukelaar, M. F. A., Zeinstra, G. G., Mes, J. J., & Fischer, A. R. H. (2019). Duckweed as human food. The influence of meal context and information on duckweed acceptability of Dutch consumers. Food Quality And Preference, 71, 76-86. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2018.06.005

The article is published Open Access – under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. This means that anyone can freely access, reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes) – as long as you fully attribute the original publication and authors.

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Arnout Fischer

About Arnout Fischer

Arnout Fischer is associate professor in the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour group. He studies consumer response to new technologies in food products and production. He thinks that consumer response to food innovation can only be understood if we realise that food is very special. Food is that special because all consumers have very much social and cultural knowledge what food should (or should not) be; and food consumption is very emotional.

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