"Obstacles and fears - food neophobia in seafood consumption"
How can we get Swedish consumers to eat more - and more varied - sustainable seafood? How can we best understand consumer resistance and needs? These are questions that occupy Elena Costa Prado, Blue Food PhD student at RISE and the University of Gothenburg.
Seafood is a healthier and more sustainable source of protein than land-based animals. Therefore, steering consumers away from red meat and towards seafood means a healthier and more sustainable diet. However, Swedish consumption is currently below the recommendation of seafood two to three times a week. 64% of Swedes only eat seafood once a week or less, mainly from four species - salmon, herring, cod and shrimp. The overall goal of the PhD project is therefore to contribute to increasing the consumption of sustainable seafood, and to make it more varied.
The focus is on better understanding attitudes towards seafood and identifying barriers to increased consumption and variety. The main thesis is that the main barrier is food neophobia - that is, fear and discomfort with new foods - which is different from food neophobia for other types of food. Although there is a lot of evidence for this, it is a relatively uncharted field of research.
Eye movements reveal how we act
Elena Costa has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master's degree in market analysis and consumer behavior. She has gained additional knowledge from her previous work at the company Tobii, which develops and sells solutions for tracking eye movements. This experience has already been put to use in her work as a Blue Food PhD student, in a study of purchases in a regular grocery store.
"Customers intending to buy any type of fish or seafood - fresh, frozen or canned - had to wear glasses that film what they see and measure their eye movements," says Elena Costa. At the checkout, they showed what they had bought and, with the film as a support, they had to explain their reasoning and why they acted as they did. It is a method that comes close to measuring natural behavior.
After nearly 40 interviews, Elena Costa has established a basis for further work to better understand behaviors and make recommendations to change them.
Focus on bivalves
In the next phase, Elena Costa will investigate how food neophobia and sensitivity to distaste affect seafood consumption. Among other things, she wants to use different methods to measure food neophobia and to distinguish between factors that attract or avoid seafood.
I want to find out how this relates to emotional and sensory expectations of certain types of seafood. Presumably they have a negative impact on consumption and attitudes towards mussels and oysters, for example. They are interesting to compare because they are perceived as completely different, even though both filter the same water and should have the same risks. Oysters are exclusive while mussels are cheap but consumption of both is relatively low and we need to understand how they can be made to be seen as everyday food.
After that, Elena Costa will compare a selection of species and study how different ways of serving them - such as raw, marinated or cooked - affect their reception. Perhaps a cooked oyster might appeal to some people more than a raw one. This knowledge can support future product development.
Information and implementation
The next question to explore is how information affects consumer behavior. What is the impact of sustainability, nutritional and sensory messages?
One hypothesis is that messages about environmental problems and sustainability that are difficult to absorb lead consumers to avoid seafood altogether. "I think it's about making seafood accessible to consumers and not putting all the responsibility on them. For example, it must be easy to choose sustainable, healthy and tasty fish and it must be uncomplicated to prepare it. Producers and retailers need to be involved in this work.
In the final part of Elena Costa's work, she will implement the knowledge gained from her doctoral studies in a retail environment.
The project is particularly relevant to research area 4: Consumer attitudes and sensory perception.
Elena Costa's project is expected to be completed in spring 2026.
Elizabeth Hörlin, RISE
John Armbrecht, University of Gothenburg
Anders Högberg, Orkla
Jun Niimi, RISE
Henrik Sundh, University of Gothenburg
Follow Elena Costa on the Instagram account @seafood.fromsweden
"Beyond raw: Investigating alternative preparation methods as a tool to increase acceptance of oysters in Sweden", Future Foods, volume 7, June 2023. Elena Costa, Elizabeth S. Collier, Åsa Strand.
"The relationship between food neophobia and hedonic ratings of novel foods may be mediated by emotional arousal", Food Quality and Preference, volume 109, July 2023. Elena Costa, Elizabeth S. Collier.