Chinese Consumers’ Perceptions of Functional Foods Designed to Help the Immune System Recover from the Impact of Air Pollution
The deterioration of air quality in China has resulted in many people looking for technological approaches or medical remedies to counteract the impact that air pollution is perceived to be having on their health and wellbeing. As the importance of diet on immune health is becoming increasingly well recognised, there is increasing interest in the development of food products designed to help the immune system recover from the impact of air pollution. To support the successful development of new functional foods it is vital to understand the consumers in the target market.The overall aim of this thesis research was to investigate Chinese consumers’ perceptions of functional foods designed to help the immune system recover from the impact of air pollution. A combination of consumer research techniques was employed in four studies. Firstly, a narrative literature review (Study 1) was conducted to elucidate Chinese consumers’ acceptance and market potential of functional food products designed to help the immune system recover from the impact of air pollution. Consumers’ attitudes towards functional foods including those designed to enhance the immune system were mainly positive, with scientific validation being important in determining the credibility of a product. This was despite the fact that the effectiveness of products currently in the market, purported to be remedies for pollution-driven impacts on the lung, did not appear to be supported by scientific evidence. The lack of scientific validation for such products was interesting as numerous studies have reported on compounds originating from food that appear to provide a wide range of benefits to immune health, including helping pollution-driven immune issues. Review of the literature showed what would appear to be market demand for effective and scientifically-proven functional food products that help Chinese consumers’ immune system recover from the impact of air pollution.Further, a netnography study (Study 2) was conducted to explore consumers’ understanding of the impact of air pollution on their health, and key attributes (expected benefits, forms and patterns of consumption) they desire in functional foods designed to help the immune system cope with the impact of air pollution. The impact of pollution on the respiratory system was considered to be of the most concern and homemade Traditional Chinese Medicine therapies and diet adjustment were the main forms of remedies discussed online. Most of the network users who posted comments were living in the East of China, which is the most economically developed area and one of the areas that suffer the most air pollution. Consumers in these areas are also generally well educated, have higher incomes, are more likely to have been exposed to Western concepts, brands etc., and are more open to trying novel foods from overseas countries than consumers in other parts of China. Therefore, the following studies chose participants having a middle-upper income and living in Shanghai or Suzhou, which are two of the most developed cities in East China.Focusing on immune health, a study (Study 3) using focus groups (n=4) and in-home semi-structured interviews (n=12) was conducted to investigate consumers’ views and living experiences of coping with poor immunity, especially under polluted air, and to obtain an understanding of the links individuals were making between their immune health and food choice. Participants tended to use the phrase “immunity” in reference to their immune system and the overall role and importance of immunity in their daily life was widely agreed upon. A spectrum of health issues was believed to be caused by poor immunity, ranging from the common cold or flu through to cancer. Among the range of perceived reasons of poor immunity, the most common reasons given were an irregular lifestyle, exposure to polluted air and increasing age. Many participates believed that immunity could be changed by modifying what they were consuming.The final research study (Study 4) was focused on exploring ideal product attributes consumers require in functional food products designed to combat the adverse impact of air pollution via Consumer Idealised Design (CID) workshops (n=4), each involving ten participants. Over the course of workshops, participants designed nineteen products including nine supplement-based and ten conventional-food-based designs. A tablet was the most common format in the supplement designs and the majority of conventional-foods were designed as a snack, drink, or dairy option. Participants favoured using terms such as “boosting immunity” as a health claim when products designed to be used long term and terms such as the “relieve respiratory symptoms” to promote products designed for acute use. Supplements and conventional-format functional foods were perceived differently by consumers and had differing expected health benefits and target markets. Consumers’ high attention to food safety suggested that product producers should apply multi-methods to communicate the safety of their products to consumers, such as using ingredients or processing products from authorised countries, applying authentications or scientific reports, and utilising natural ingredients rather than synthetic ones.The results from the series of studies presented in this thesis have revealed that there is a strong potential for the increased use of functional foods to help combat the effects of air pollution in China and the innovators should develop products based on a good understanding of the unique perceptions of Chinese consumers. In addition, this research has demonstrated the advantages of using a range of consumer-oriented methodologies to obtain an understanding of targeted consumers’ perceptions when undertaking new product development. The insights gained in this thesis indicate an exciting time ahead for manufacturers of functional foods for the Chinese market.
Advisor: Bremer, Phil; Mirosa, Miranda
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Department of Food Science
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Functional Foods; Air Pollution; Chinese Consumers; Immune-Boosting Foods; Immune Health; Netnography; Perceptions; Focus Group; In-home Interview; Consumer Idealised Design (CID); Ideal attributes
Research Type: Thesis