Measuring food tendencies: program lecture on culture and food habits

Last year, in an unplanned conversation with friends during a weekend retreat, we found ourselves engaged in a spirited discussion about decision-making and choices. Some said fewer choices were preferred because it is easier to decide, while the contrary case was to prefer more choices so one can better decide what one wants.  What influences the preference for fewer versus larger number of choices ?



It was a long lecture during the HEG program, taught by someone who spoke softly, and it was right after a good lunch. But, it was a lecture that brought a smile to my face, and made me sit-up because it discussed variation in food tendencies among people, and how it can be measured. In one survey example about choice of ice-cream parlor, assuming similar prices (and presumably similar quality), people from different nationalities were asked what they would choose: an ice-cream parlor with 10 choices or 50 ?1 Of the countries examined, at the higher-end of those preferring the 50-choice ice-cream parlor were people from the USA (56%) while at the lower-end were people from Switzerland (28%) and France (32%)1. What if the survey questioned choice of wine instead of ice-cream ?



The richness of food in France is well known.IMG_0873b However, the incidence of cardiovascular disease and associated mortality in France, compared to the USA for instance, is low2. A French sociologist and American psychologist together with their team have researched and written about differences in food habits between the people of France and the USA2. Some of their results based on survey questionnaires indicate that in France, in contrast to the USA, there is a greater association of food with "pleasure" than "worry" - for instance, when asked to associate “heavy cream” with either “whipped” or “unhealthy”, 68% of American women choose “unhealthy” while only 28% do so in France; there is less snacking between meals; and, the meal portion size is smaller while the time spent conversing during meals is more (including eating at McDonalds)2.

An American gentleman I met recently while talking about the good time he had had during his recent vacation in France, added that for him, the one thing that was difficult to adapt to was the fact that he couldn’t easily get a cup of coffee to-go, instead he had to sit-down to drink it.



1. Rozin P et. al. Attitudes towards large numbers of choices in the food domain: a cross-cultural study of five countries in Europe and the USA. Appetite 2006

2. Rozin P. The meaning of food in our lives: a cross-cultural perspective on eating and well-being. Review. J Nutr Educ Behav 2005

4 thoughts on “Measuring food tendencies: program lecture on culture and food habits

  1. Sarah Copeland

    Hi Bala.
    It is an interesting discussion. I certainly feel overwhelmed and bogged down by decision making at the regular grocery store these days where there are twenty five varieties of yogurt and forty five choices of orange juice. I far prefer to go into small but pleasant shops where quality not quantity of products seem to be highlighted. Of course that usually comes at a price.! That said, take me into an international cheese shop and I can be entirely delighted by all the wonderful choices from all over the world. In that case, the novelty of variety can be a most exciting and positive experience.

    I think perhaps that the French have always had their eye on quality products and have not been as open to other world food influences as they protect their own food identity. Perhaps this has influenced the narrower choice of products along with their going- to -market and pedestrian shopping habits. In North America food from different cultures is celebrated and everyone wants to cook a variety of dishes so the grocery stores have to please a wider audience. We have all become used to being able to get anything and everything we need at one store and by car. I think this may explain the statistics about the ice cream choices in the studies mentioned.

    Perhaps with the growth of food literacy and nutritional education in North America, we will see the trend growing towards quality traditional and authentic products and smaller artisanal shops with a more sane number of choices.(If not then we can always meet up in France and celebrate their culture by sharing some Krug, or maybe some Tattinger, no wait how about some Moet.........


    1. Bala

      Post author

      Hi Sarah,

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts in detail.

      I agree. I think simplicity of choice, the good quality of food and the service associated with buying it, are important. The exception to simplicity of choice is when something interests me greatly when the prospect of variety is inviting.

      As mentioned in the blog, I wonder what would happen to the results, if the study on variety of choice involved wine or for that matter cheese or even chocolate.

      Your thoughts of the first study's results with respect to the multicultural nature of Northern America is interesting. I wonder to what extent individual choice for variety especially in something as commonly enjoyed as ice-cream, would involve this aspect.

      Growth of food literacy, nutritional education and small artisanal shops, I agree are all good things.

  2. nirmala

    Unlike earlier days the buyer these days are well informed about products available on the shelf.Lot of research goes into produce as the manufacturer caters to an educated customer.I agree variety and wider choice has become prevalent or rather mandatory to cater to the needs of the customers from different part of the world.

    The local produce has its own charm and individuality.helps the small farmer,manufacturer. The wider choice exposes one to the different culture prevalent around us. It is more about availability of raw material in different regions

    Wider choice in ice creams is a huge welcome from me . That many variety to taste! Based on one's palate the choice can narrow down before one hits the right choice.

    Very relevant topic in today's world


I look forward to reading your thoughts...