Article appeared in issue 3, 2020

Changing ways

Has Covid-19 altered the way we shop and cook? New research from Teagasc, University College Cork and the University of Antwerp looks at changes in consumer behaviour and if they are likely to stick

Could you have predicted that we would be baking up a storm during the Covid-19 lockdown? Has the pandemic and the ensuing restrictions influenced wider aspects of our attitudes and behaviour with regards to food? Researchers from Teagasc and UCC have collaborated with the University of Antwerp and universities across the globe to find out more about consumer shopping, cooking and baking, eating and media habits before and during the Covid-19 restrictions. 

Universities and research institutions from 28 countries have undertaken the International Corona Cooking Survey, allowing Irish consumers' behaviour to be compared with their European and international counterparts. 

“Shopping behaviour has clearly changed as a result of social distancing, with people spending more time queuing to get into shops, for example. However, questions remain such as: how has this impacted on who does the shopping; the use of shopping lists; and preference for local suppliers?” asks Professor Maeve Henchion, head of the Department of Agrifood Business and Spatial Analysis in Teagasc. “With many parents using baking and cooking as ways to occupy children at home, are consumers using their time to develop their culinary skills and will future generations be more 'food savvy'? Is a lack of time really one of the main barriers to cooking and baking on a regular basis? Is Granny’s recipe for scones still the gold standard, or are online influencers taking over? These are the kinds of questions we will be able to answer through this survey.”

“Anecdotal evidence indicates a renewed interest in baking and more cooking from scratch. However, wine consumption and treating has also increased. So, while we might expect health motivations to increase in importance at this time, is this actually the case across all age groups? This survey will enable us to quantify this and other changes in food-related behaviour and attitudes, and the international collaboration will enable us to see difference in the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on Irish consumers compared to others on an international basis,” says Professor Mary McCarthy, professor in Marketing in Cork University Business School.

Dr Sinead McCarthy, Department of Agrifood Business and Spatial Analysis in Teagasc says: “Many of the changes we are seeing in consumer food-related behaviour and attitudes are temporary, but some will be more permanent in nature. We need to understand this now to help Irish farmers, food producers and retailers adapt to the post-Covid-19 context.”

Professor Henchion adds: "What we hope to learn from this, is how have consumers changed their food-related behaviour during restrictions, in particular how has their food literacy changed, and then we have to figure out if these changes are embedded, if have they become habits, and tease out the implications of these changes. Food literacy is a useful concept; it is the skills and knowledge that people use in making healthy, tasty, affordable meals for themselves and their families. It includes an understanding of food choice motivations, for example, the importance of healthy versus price versus convenience in making such choices.

“The results will be used in two ways. Firstly, for public health nutrition. We will be able to see if consumers' diets have improved or deteriorated, and see if their capacity to maintain healthy diets in the future has changed. This knowledge will inform the design of public health nutrition campaigns. 

“Secondly, this knowledge will be useful for innovation in the food industry. It will help to inform new product developments, promotional campaigns, the nature of information put on packs and at point of sale and so on. New product development and promotional campaigns need to take account of consumers’ food literacy. With higher levels of literacy there may be an opportunity for different types of ingredients, including different meat cuts, a greater role for on-pack or point-of-sale information relating to recipes and a change in the level of sophistication of such recipes. As part of this, we’ve looked at the influence of various sources of food behaviour, e.g. family and friends, Instagram influencers and others. Understanding where people get their information, and the sources they trust will be very useful.”