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Professor Hely Tuorila has studied consumers´ experiences of the healthiness and taste of food, and the possible conflict between them.

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An essential feature of the Finnish Easter is the traditional Easter dessert mämmi. At least as essential is talking about its to say the least extraordinary appearance. There are anecdotes, legends, jokes. Every Easter people at the dinner table wonder how foreigners would react to mämmi. Professor of Sensory Food Science Hely Tuorila has studied these reactions.

Sensory food science is carried out at the Department of Food Technology. The department is part of a unit to be launched under the collective name Viikki Food Science, thus giving a joint profile to the Food Science and Nutrition studied in three departments of the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry on theViikki campus, ca. 8 km away from the centre of the City of Helsinki.

Professor Tuorila has studied consumers experiences of the healthiness and taste of food, and the possible conflict between them. She also wrote her dissertation on this subject. A sabbatical year at a US Army research laboratory directed her interest towards unfamiliar foods, the impact of information, and consumer reactions.

"During the Second World War leading psychologists and social psychologists were employed by the US Army laboratory to study the acceptance of foods. During long periods of field warfare it was important that soldiers ate properly and had enough to drink. Food went to waste in large amounts, however, and complaints of bad food were frequent," says Tuorila, describing the background of the laboratory, which is located near Boston. The laboratory has a strong research tradition concerning what food is acceptable and why. Different ethnic groups enjoy different foods; what is liked by one group is rejected by another. Thus the same foods are eaten by a wide variety of people.

 

Mämmi and homemade ale in ethnic foods research

In the early 1990s, the US Army Natick RD&E Center launched a project on the acceptance of ethnic foods. Hely Tuorila participated in this research by using Finnish homemade ale and mämmi as unfamiliar foods and studying their acceptance. Even before the research actually began, Tuorila found herself in extraordinary situations with her food samples: once she explored the cargo area of the Boston airport trying to locate the frozen Easter desserts. "The ale was made by the technician," Tuorila reminisces in her office in Viikki, where the bookshelves carry files with interesting titles: bread, aroma, odour, colour, salt, fat.

"We knew that people knew absolutely nothing about these foods. We wanted to study the impact of information," Tuorila describes her point of departure. The test subjects were divided into three different groups. One group was not given any information on the foods. The second group was told the names of the products, and the third group also received information on their ingredients, use and cultural background. The respondents rated ten verbal statements measuring their food neophobia in general; this Food Neophobia Scale has been developed by Canadian professor Patricia Pliner. They were asked to evaluate the products on the basis of appearance; appearance and odour; and appearance, odour and taste. In appearance, the foods studied corresponded to root beer and applebutter, familiar American products which were used as comparison samples. Thus the appearance of mämmi did not constitute an obstacle to its acceptance.

"The Finnish foods did not do too well. Their appearance corresponded to that of the familiar products, but their taste and odour were not liked. To a certain extent, additional information did contribute towards a more positive attitude where the odour and taste were concerned. The Food Neophobia Scale also worked.Those initially less neophobic had more positive attitudes," Tuorila explains the research results. If the respondents could associate the unfamiliar foodsample to a familiar food that they liked they rated it more favourably. Thus familiar products served as a kind of bridge to the new product: novel foods are easier to accept if they resemble something already familiar and well-liked. It is difficult to put across something totally strange as good," Tuorila says. In the second round, homemade ale at least was a little better received. Just as children are taught to get used to novel foods, so predisposal also works with adults.

 

Mämmi is part of our identity

At a public seminar in Finland, Tuorila was later chastised for the mämmi experiment: the test subjects were offered mämmi au naturel, although at Easter it is always served with cream and sugar. "I had quite a lot of trouble with the audience. Sense of national identity was rather high, with the audience clamouring that mämmi had been denigrated. In a way they were right, of course.The experiment was conducted in a laboratory and controlled tests always have their limitations. In an exotic Finnish restaurant mämmi might have been a winner. In such situations neophobia usually gets weaker and is replaced by food neophilia."

Tuorila also experienced the strong cultural ties of mämmi. Enjoying mämmi is rooted in us, mämmi is part of our experiences in childhood and adolescence. Moving in the mämmi circles is part of the identity of even those who do not like it.

Tuorila again encountered the cultural meaning of food when Finnish-American cooperation was extended to other Finnish foods. The new products were cloudberry jam, air-dried reindeer and yosa, a novel oats product whose taste resembles that of yoghurt or porridge. Yosa is based on a traditional Karelian dish and it has been developed at the Department of Food Technology at the University of Helsinki. For Finns, the cloudberry is very prestigious. It has a wonderful colour and aroma. My colleagues at the laboratory thought the berries had a sour odour and a strange taste. I found myself behaving like my Finnish mämmi audience I found this almost insulting. They did not understand that cloudberries are a treasure.

Cloudberries did not do too well in the study. With cloudberries and reindeer, the researchers wanted to study how far acceptance of food can be increased through praising the product, and whether attitudes to plant and animal products differ. Earlier research had indicated that unfamiliar animal products are considered more suspicious and frightening. Tuorila, however, found that the reception of reindeer meat was relatively better than that of cloudberry jam. Reindeer meat resembled beef jerky, a dried salted meat product served in bars, and thus aroused pleasant associations. A familiar product paved the way for a novel one, while even extravagant praise failed to increase the popularity of cloudberry, whose strangeness was enhanced by its pits.

Even in Finland, praise does not guarantee acceptance. Tuorila has also studied the acceptance of yosa in Finland. 15-year-old girls were merciless although the product was profiled as a low-calory food. Among another age group, senior citizens over 70 years of age residing in a service block, yosa was received with enthusiasm when the group was told the product contained a large amount of fibre. Acceptance was further promoted by a pleasant association with a familiar food: the porridge-like texture appealed to this group.

 

A "minced-meat people"

Research on the acceptance of Finnish products also gave food for thought concerning the export of the products. Tuorila sees two possible marketing strategies. The products can be quietly introduced onto the market if they resemble a product already familiar, for example, yoghurts. Reindeer and cloudberries are a different thing. They are prestigious products and this fact should be utilised in their marketing. It should appeal to people´s yearning for novelties and thus overcome food neophobia. Creating an attractive image requires money and resources, and the risks are high,Ó Tuorila says but still continues to believe in mämmi: It is healthy, interesting and profitable.

"It is nice that we still have exotic foods to export. I find it depressing that soon it´s all going to be one big pot," Tuorila sighs, referring to the integration of culinary culture. Her voice turns worried when she considers modern Finnish cuisine. We have become snobbish and fussy. A minced-meat people. Brawn does not sound good or interesting. Well, perhaps that´s too much to ask. But we do have excellent traditional foods such as Baltic herring in different forms, and cabbage dishes. Traditional Finnish cooking was practical and made use of everything; we should not fully abandon this tradition."

On the Food Neophobia Scale, there is usually little difference between Finns and Americans. A survey among a representative sample of Finns showed that those close to retirement are more neophobic than others. The oldest age group has been predisposed to a traditional diet and has not had access to a large variety of different dishes," Tuorila believes.

Professor Tuorila has noticed that she herself is rather a neophilic and likes to experiment."Dog meat does not sound too nice, but if I ever went to China, I might try it," she says. "You can try anything. Within certain limits, food offers a nice, safe way to have adventures."

Professor Tuorila recommends a versatile diet: "It is a more pleasant way to live and to obtain the necessary nutrients. Food should taste good. It is often better when it is not processed too highly. Meals should contain lots of vegetables, rye bread and other grain products. And some treats. A good meal deserves a good dessert."