SINGAPORE: Asian consumers approach healthy food purchases differently, which means brands should reconsider how they package food in the region, recent research suggests.

Writing exclusively for Warc, May O. Lwin at the Institute of Asian Consumer Insight, observes that rapid changes in the food retail market in Asia's emerging markets has created major challenges for consumers as they attempt to navigate new forms of retail, an unprecedented choice of food products and conflicting nutritional messages.

At the same time, she notes that that nutritional knowledge and literacy amongst Asian consumers is at much lower levels than their Western counterparts, particularly when it comes to modern supermarket navigation. (For more, read How do Asian consumers determine which food is healthy?.)

An experiment by the Institute of Asian Consumer Insight, involving Asians residing in Singapore aged between 18 and 36 years old, tested the impact of seals on food choice. This offered two identical snack products: one with a seal manufactured to look like a real seal and another without. Participants were then asked to rate these products on a number of dimensions.

The pack which bore the fictitious seal fared significantly better in terms of perceived purity, wellness and healthiness of the product, suggesting that even an unfamiliar seal signifying an apparent endorsement by a public health authority confers perceived health benefits.

"While Western consumers use prior product knowledge and nutrition labels to make choices, Asians often rely on highly visible external cues that are clearly seen (including pack design, product information, claims and advertisements) to determine whether food products are healthy," Lwin says.

"Some of these marketing signals can go beyond the central features of the packaging and are called 'peripheral cues', " she adds. These are "less dominant features" that may include things like the shelf position of the packaging, the physical weight and shape of the package or even the Country of Origin (COO) of the product.

This has ramifications for international food brands, who may need to rethink their packaging strategies for the region.

"Nutrition labels on packs originate from Western cultures and tend to utilize both numbers and English terminology unfamiliar to Asians (e.g. iron, lactose, cardiovascular health)," says Lwin.

"Without specific nutrition label education, these forms of nutrition communication can become barriers to Asian consumers' assessment of health values in packaged foods."

Data sourced from Warc