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Article Consumer Preferences for Processed Meat Reformulation Strategies: A Prototype for Sensory Evaluation Combined with a Choice-Based Conjoint Experiment 1,2 2 3,4 1, 2 2 Xinyi Hong , Chenguang Li , Liming Wang , Mansi Wang *, Simona Grasso and Frank J. Monahan School of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Guangzhou University, Guangzhou 510006, China School of Agriculture and Food Science, University College Dublin, D04 V1W8 Dublin, Ireland School of Economics and Management, Beijing University of Technology, Beijing 100124, China Irish Institute for Chinese Studies, University College Dublin, D04 V1W8 Dublin, Ireland * Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org Abstract: Consumption trends demand healthier meat products and require research into reformu- lation strategies. Ambiguities in consumer preferences for two processed meat reformulation strat- egies (i.e., ingredient “reduction” and nutrient “addition”) were investigated. Using physical pro- totypes of omega-3-enriched pork sausages and sensory evaluation to reduce hypothetical bias, fol- lowed by a choice-based conjoint experiment, results suggested that consumers valued both “addi- tion” and “reduction” reformulation strategies, and consumers’ willingness-to-pay (WTP) premi- ums were the highest for omega-3 addition, followed by fat reduction, and were lowest for salt reduction. Moreover, WTP was influenced by sensory preferences and was positively correlated with sensory liking levels. Providing health-related information improved consumers’ sensory per- ceptions of omega-3-enriched sausages. Findings imply that reformulated healthier meat products Citation: Hong, X.; Li, C.; Wang, L.; are acceptable to consumers. Moreover, to enhance consumers’ valuation on new launches of Wang, M.; Grasso, S.; Monahan, F.J. healthier processed meat products, meat manufacturers should inform consumers of health-related Consumer Preferences for Processed reformulation information, provide consumers with opportunities to taste newly developed health- Meat Reformulation Strategies: A ier processed meat products, and continuously optimize consumers’ sensory experience. Prototype for Sensory Evaluation Combined with a Choice-Based Keywords: reformulation strategy; healthier processed meat; sensory liking; consumer preferences; Conjoint Experiment. Agriculture willingness-to-pay 2023, 13, 234. https://doi.org/ 10.3390/agriculture13020234 Academic Editors: Gabriela Maria Grigioni, 1. Introduction Anibal Pordomingo, Ignacio Arturo Domínguez Vara The worldwide market value for processed meat products is forecasted to increase and Ernesto Morales Almaráz from US$523.1 billion to US$737.2 billion over the period 2020–2026. In the U.S., processed meat products account for 22% of meat consumption , while in Europe, available data Received: 19 October 2022 indicate that adults consume more processed meat than the recommended intake . Revised: 31 December 2022 Nevertheless, processed meat products are often associated with low-quality dietary Accepted: 12 January 2023 choices  as well as high salt and saturated fat intakes . Reformulation and associated Published: 18 January 2023 health-related claims provide potential solutions to overcome nutritional defects in pro- cessed meat products [5–7]. Generally, there are two strategies for reformulation, namely an “addition” strategy Copyright: © 2023 by the authors. and a “reduction” strategy . The “addition” strategy involves enriching processed meat Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. products with substances with health benefits. Examples include fiber-enriched sausages This article is an open access article  and omega-3 fatty acids enriched sausages . The “reduction” strategy involves di- distributed under the terms and minishing the content of unhealthy ingredients that are of concern. Examples include low- conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license sodium dry fermented sausages , and nitrite reduced sausages and ham . (https://creativecommons.org/license Nevertheless, consumer preferences towards “addition” and “reduction” strategies s/by/4.0/). are ambiguous in the existing literature. On the one hand, some literature concludes that Agriculture 2023, 13, 234. https://doi.org/10.3390/agriculture13020234 www.mdpi.com/journal/agriculture Agriculture 2023, 13, 234 2 of 16 consumers place more value on the “reduction” strategy and little value on the “addition” strategy. Schnettler, et al.  conducted a survey showing that consumers are willing to pay moderately more for reformulated frankfurter sausages with reduced sodium or sat- urated fat but not for those claiming to be fiber-enriched or cholesterol-reduced. A com- panion study indicated similar observations regarding perceived healthiness and pur- chasing intentions (i.e., much higher for reduced sodium/fat, slightly higher for fiber-en- richment and marginally higher for cholesterol reduction) . Likewise, Shan, et al.  compared consumers’ reaction to reduction in salt/fat with addition of nutrients (i.e., omega 3 and vitamin E) in several processed meat products (namely ham, sausages, and beef burgers) using rating-based conjoint analysis. They reported higher perceived health- iness and purchasing intentions for decreased salt and/or fat than for the added nutrients in processed meat products. Furthermore, Profeta, et al.  found that when consumers were asked to choose between regular meat burgers and hybrid meat burgers (hybrid meat products contain plant-based ingredients, not specific nutrients) via online question- naires, the majority (59.4%) voted for the former option, whereas only 27.4% chose the latter. On the other hand, there are studies finding favorable opinions on the “addition” of nutrients into processed meat products. Zajac, Kulawik, Tkaczewska, Migdal and Pustkowiak  reported that consumers preferred sausages with 5% flaxseed addition over sausages with no addition regarding taste, appearance, tenderness, juiciness, smell and overall acceptability. Moreover, Neville, et al.  found no significant differences in sensory liking between plant protein-enriched beef burgers as well as pork sausages ver- sus their commercial counterparts among consumers. Other consumer-accepted reformu- lated examples include fiber-added sausages , omega-3-enriched sausages , multi- nutrient enriched dry fermented sausages , plant-sterol enriched turkey , and plant-based hybrid beef burgers [14,15]. The inconsistency in findings may be due to different research methodologies em- ployed. When using questionnaires only to describe hypothetically healthier processed meat products, consumers prefer a “reduction” strategy, but when a sensory evaluation of heathier meat prototypes is conducted, an “addition” strategy is likely to be also wel- comed. In real situations, consumers may have purchased food products without having previously tasted them. Studying consumers’ perceptions of novel food products is highly relevant to understanding their preferences and purchasing behaviors. Without real tast- ing, Konuk  finds that perceived taste has a significant impact on perceived quality, and perceived taste and perceived quality are both related to consumers’ willingness-to- buy. Nevertheless, hypothetical bias is often a major cause for deviation in stated prefer- ence evaluation, causing participant overstatement or understatement . The hypothet- ical bias problems tend to be intensified in the acceptance of novel meat products when there are few marketable products to refer to in consumers’ minds. In this context, a sensory evaluation helps to reduce hypothetical bias toward health- ier meat products and a satisfactory tasting experience helps to overcome barriers for con- sumption . A number of studies suggest that sensory evaluations are useful to moderate consumers’ views of hypothetically healthier meat products and to reduce associated con- sumer skepticism [8,18,19]. These equivocal conclusions regarding consumers’ prefer- ences for “addition” or “reduction” reformulation strategies for healthier processed meat products may be resolved using a research design combining a sensory evaluation and a choice-based conjoint (CBC) experiment. Here, sensory experience can bridge the gap be- tween a concept and a real product; the hypothetically constructed scenarios in a CBC experiment can measure consumers’ willingness-to-pay (WTP) for both “addition” and “reduction” reformulation strategies. For this purpose, a physical prototype of omega-3-enriched pork sausages, for sen- sory testing, was manufactured in a food laboratory. This study selected pork sausages as the base food carrier and omega-3 fatty acid as the enriched nutrient for a number of rea- sons. Irish pork sausages are common and widely consumed food products in Ireland . Sausages are also globally popular, which ensures relevance for participants from Agriculture 2023, 13, 234 3 of 16 various backgrounds and reduces bias due to food unfamiliarity. Sausages are suitable for the addition of nutrients and/or the removal or replacement of ingredients during pro- cessing [21,22]. The formulation of direct addition of fish oil into processed meat products to alter the fatty acid composition was advocated by Decker and Park . Furthermore, consumer preferences for omega-3-enriched processed meat (including pork sausages) were observed in some previous studies [8,24]. Therefore, omega-3-enriched sausages ful- fil the perceived match between a food carrier and a healthier ingredient and avoid the negative influence of mismatched combinations . Compared with omega-3-enriched sausages, low-fat and low-salt sausage products are more commonly seen at market. In this study, the salt content and fat content in sausages were not changed. Only omega-3- enriched sausages were manufactured as a prototype. By incorporating a real sensory evaluation experience to reduce hypothetical bias, this study aimed to clarify existing ambiguities in consumer preferences and WTP to- wards two opposing reformulation strategies (i.e., nutrient “addition” and ingredient “re- duction”) in processed meat. Under this context, the sensory evaluation served two pur- poses: firstly, first-hand observing and tasting of the omega-3-enriched sausages de- creased potential skepticism towards novel food products and allowed consumers to ad- just to quality expectations and consumption intentions after experiencing the product ; secondly, sensory factors were taken into consideration to explain consumers’ WTP. The objectives of this study were three-fold: (1) to measure consumers’ sensory liking for a physical prototype of omega-3-enriched sausages; (2) to estimate consumers’ WTP for omega-3-enriched sausages, reduced-fat sausages, and reduced-salt sausages; (3) to inves- tigate how sensory liking influences the WTP for reformulated sausages. While this study addressed consumers’ perceptions of two opposing processed meat reformulation strate- gies, a companion study by the authors investigated how different nutrition and health claim information influenced consumers’ perceptions (Hong et al., 2022). 2. Methods 2.1. Omega-3 Enriched Sausages Preparation The pork sausage meat batter was purchased from an established local butcher in Dublin (Fenelons, Stillorgan, Co. Dublin, Ireland). Cod liver oil (557 mg EPA and 472 mg DHA per 5 mL) was purchased from Holland & Barrett (Nutgrove Shopping Centre, Dub- lin 14, Ireland). Cod liver oil liquid (6 mL) was incorporated into the pork sausage meat (1kg per batch) in a Stefan mixer (UMSK 5E–60E, Stephan Machinery GmbH, Steph- anplatz 2, 31789 Hameln, Germany) at medium speed for 4 min, to give a projected level of 46.8 mg of EPA and DHA per 100 kcal of sausage meat (meeting the minimum require- ment of 40 mg of the sum of EPA and DHA per 100 kcal of sausage meat to carry a claim regarding omega-3 fatty acids). Four batches of sausages (approximately 25 kg meat batter for each batch) were manufactured and were stuffed into collagen casings (Edicas NB Ed- ible Casings, S.L., Spain) using a hydraulic sausage filler (Mainca EM12, Equipamientos Cárnicos, S.L., Spain) and then hand-linked into cocktail sausage size (70 mm length 22 mm diameter). The final weight of each cocktail sausage was approximately 10 g. Approx- imately 250 sausages were made in each batch. 2.2. Data Collection Procedure This study was approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee for Sciences (ref- erence number LS-17-91-Hong-Li) of University College Dublin (UCD). The data collec- tion involved sensory evaluation data and CBC experimental data, collected in a sensory laboratory in compliance with ISO 8589  at the UCD Institute of Food and Health. The process took on average 30 min per participant and was completed in one session. The questionnaire was administered using computers and on paper. This study involved a total of 330 participants who were voluntarily recruited by snowball sampling on the UCD Belfield campus. They were all consumers of processed Agriculture 2023, 13, 234 4 of 16 meat (e.g., sausages, nuggets, burgers, ham, bacon, salami, smoked meats) and of over 18 years old. Participants provided informed consent when participating in this study and were not remunerated for their time. Out of 330, 326 participants were valid (see Section 3.1. for more details). 2.2.1. Sensory Evaluation Sensory evaluations were completed in individual tasting booths in a sensory labor- atory under artificial daylight type illumination and in a controlled temperature (22–24 degrees Celsius). The same participant evaluated three samples under two different con- ditions: participants tasted two sausages in the blind condition and one sausage in the informed condition. The sausage samples were presented in a sequential monadic order. First, under a blind condition (with tasting and no information), two sensory evalu- ations of conventional pork sausages and omega-3-enriched pork sausages were con- ducted. Each time, participants evaluated a raw sausage sealed in a transparent bag for external appearance observation to imitate the situation on a shop shelf, and a cooked sausage, presented on an odorless white plastic plate with odorless wooden tooth picks for tasting. After observing the appearance of the raw sausage and tasting the cooked sausages, participants rated the appearance, taste, texture and overall liking in a 9-point structured scale, where 1 = “dislike extremely”, 2 = “dislike very much”, 3 = “dislike mod- erately”, 4 = “dislike slightly”, 5 = “neither like nor dislike”, 6 = “like slightly”, 7 = “like moderately”, 8 = “like very much”, and 9 = “like extremely”. Conventional sausages and omega-3-enriched sausages were evaluated in randomized order and with three-digit ran- dom codes. Second, participants self-assessed their familiarity with omega-3 on a structured 9- point scale where 1 = ‘‘extremely unfamiliar”, 5 = “neither unfamiliar nor familiar”, and 9 = ‘‘extremely familiar”. After answering the familiarity question and before tasting (in the informed condition, below), all participants were informed that the sausages contained sufficient omega-3 fatty acids to be labeled with a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) nutrition claim “source of omega-3 fatty acids”. Third, a sensory evaluation of omega-3 enriched pork sausages was conducted under the informed condition and only an omega-3-enriched sausage was given to each partici- pant for evaluation, following the same evaluation procedure of the earlier blind condi- tion. 2.2.2. Choice-Based Conjoint (CBC) Experiment Following sensory evaluation, a CBC experiment was conducted, which collected in- formation on participants’ favored alternatives for hypothetical sausages with five attrib- utes in varying combinations (Table 1). These five attributes and their associated levels were carefully specified to reflect the characteristics of critical value to consumers accord- ing to the preceding relevant literature [8,20,26]. Price and meat content were relevant market offerings, thus ensuring relevance to consumers in making their choices. The four price levels were €2.60, €2.80, €3.00 and €3.20 per 454 g pack of sausages, while the four meat content levels were 60%, 70%, 80% and 90% of pork meat in the sausages. The three claims, including the nutrient addition claim (i.e., “source of omega-3”) and the two in- gredient reduction claims (i.e., “reduced fat” and “reduced salt”), corresponding to both “addition” and “reduction” reformulation strategies, were of interest in this research. A full factorial design of attributes and levels (Table 1) generated a total number of 128 alternatives (4 × 4 × 2 × 2 × 2). Considering the cognitive demand, these 128 alternatives were reduced to 24, and grouped into 12 choice tasks in the questionnaire. This procedure was achieved by using a modified Fedorov algorithm to ensure that the design was bal- anced and efficient [27,28]. Agriculture 2023, 13, 234 5 of 16 Table 1. Attributes of sausages used in choice experiment questionnaire. Attributes Levels Notes Four: Price Per pack price, net weight 454 g € 2.60, € 2.80, € 3.00, € 3.20 Four: Meat content Pork meat percentage in sausages 60%, 70%, 80%, 90% Two: An eligible nutrition claim (as listed in the Annex to Nutrient enrichment claim Source of Omega-3, Regulation (EC) No. 1924/2006) of “source of omega-3 No Omega-3 fatty acids” Two: An eligible reduced (name of nutrient) claim (as listed Reduced Fat, in the Annex to Regulation (EC) No. 1924/2006) mean- No Fat Reduction ing “reduced in saturated fatty acids” Ingredient reduction claim Two: An eligible reduced (name of nutrient) claim (as listed Reduced Salt, in the Annex to Regulation (EC) No. 1924/2006) mean- No Salt Reduction ing “reduced in sodium/salt”. The attributes of sausages used in choice experiment questionnaire were the same as in Hong, Li, Wang, Gao, Wang, Zhang and Monahan . Participants were asked to imagine that they had made a purchase of sausages and had indicated their most preferred alternative across all twelve choice tasks. Each task consisted of three alternatives: two hypothetically constructed sausage products and a “neither” option. The figures of choice tasks used in the choice experiment questionnaire were the same as in Hong, Li, Wang, Gao, Wang, Zhang and Monahan . A no-purchase option (i.e., neither) was added in each choice set, which allowed a participant to choose not to “buy” sausage products just like in a real shopping experience. Lastly, participants were asked to answer additional attitudinal, demographic, and behavioral questions. The questions covered food consumption habits (e.g., indication of consumption frequency of processed meat) and socio-demographic characteristics (e.g., gender, age, education, employment, monthly food budget and income). 2.3. Econometric Models and Data Analysis Observation of the choices made by participants manifests the consumer utility de- rived from each alternative, based on the Lancaster consumer theory and random utility theory (RUT) [29,30]. Suppose a consumer, denoted n, gets some utility 𝑈 from each 𝑛𝑗𝑡 alternative. Then, the latent utility is further divided into two parts: one part is observed and constructed as a function of explainable variables related to the alternatives and the other part is unobserved and randomly varies among alternatives and consumers . A mathematical denotation of utility is modeled as follows: 𝑈 = 𝑉 + ℇ (1) 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑛𝑗𝑡 where 𝑈 denotes the total utility obtained by a consumer n, from the alternative j (j = 𝑛𝑗𝑡 1,…,J) in the choice set t. 𝑉 measures utility by a vector of explainable variables con- 𝑛𝑗𝑡 structed by researcher. ℇ represents the difference between the measured utility and 𝑛𝑗𝑡 the total utility. Under the utility-maximization assumption, a consumer n chooses an al- ternative i among all J alternatives within the same choice set t, if and only if 𝑈 > 𝑈 𝑛𝑖𝑡 𝑛𝑗𝑡 ∀𝑖 ≠ 𝑗 for any i and j. Standard specification of 𝑉 is constructed to be linear with prod- 𝑛𝑗𝑡 uct attributes . For this study, we specify the utility function of a consumer n, selecting the sausage product j (j = 1,2,3, for product 1, product 2 and neither) in the choice set t (t = 1,2,3,…,12), as below: 𝑈 = 𝛽 + 𝛽 𝑃𝑟𝑖𝑐𝑒 + 𝛽 𝑡𝑀𝑒𝑎 + 𝛽 3 + 𝛽 𝑡𝑅𝑓𝑎 + 𝛽 𝑎𝑙𝑡𝑅𝑠 + 𝛽 3 ∗ 𝑛𝑗𝑡 0 1 𝑛𝑗𝑡 2 𝑛𝑗𝑡 3 𝑛𝑗𝑡 4 𝑛𝑗𝑡 5 𝑛𝑗𝑡 6 𝑛𝑗𝑡 (2) 𝑡𝑅𝑓𝑎 + 𝛽 3 ∗ 𝑎𝑙𝑡𝑅𝑠 + 𝛽 𝑡𝑅𝑓𝑎 ∗ 𝑡𝑎𝑙𝑅𝑠 + ℇ 𝑛𝑗𝑡 7 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑛𝑗𝑡 8 𝑡 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑛𝑗 𝑂𝑚 𝑂𝑚 𝑂𝑚 Agriculture 2023, 13, 234 6 of 16 Dependent variables were dichotomous, where 1 meant the alternative being chosen and 0 otherwise. The constant 𝛽 captured the effect of the opt-out option and repre- sented the utility level if a consumer chose “neither”. Dummy coding was adopted for a lower likelihood of misinterpretation . Both main effects and specific two-way inter- action effects were evaluated in the model. Nutrition claims regarding omega-3 addition, reduced fat and reduced salt (corresponding to 𝑂𝑚 3 , 𝑅𝑓𝑎𝑡 and 𝑎𝑙𝑡𝑅𝑠 in the model, 𝑗𝑡 𝑗𝑡 respectively) were all binary variables, where 1 indicated the sausage product having a claim and 0 otherwise respectively. 𝑂𝑚 3 𝑅𝑓𝑎𝑡 , 𝑂𝑚 3 𝑎𝑙𝑡𝑅𝑠 , 𝑅𝑓𝑎𝑡 𝑎𝑙𝑡𝑅𝑠 were 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑗𝑡𝑛 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑡𝑛𝑗 interactive variables. Previous studies suggest that consumers have heterogeneous preferences to meat products and nutritional claims are of unequal value to different consumers [33–35]. Therefore, coefficients of observed variables should be allowed to vary among partici- pants. A highly flexible logit model, namely a random parameter logit (RPL) model, was used for data analysis. The coefficient of price in the utility function is specified to follow a lognormal distribution, which is suitable where higher prices are consistently valued negatively [30,36]. The coefficients of non-price attributes, including the meat content and nutrition claims, could logically be of either sign, and are estimated independently as ran- dom parameters with a normal distribution. Each consumer is treated to a set of specific parameters reflecting individual preferences. A generalized mixed model was estimated in WTP space to obtain consumers’ WTP. The superiority of WTP space lies within plausible WTP estimates, and a better goodness of fit in the data [37,38]. The Equation (2) is re-parameterized in such a way that the coef- ficients directly represent marginal WTP for attributes and the prior assumptions of dis- tributions are made with regard to WTP . WTPs for nonprice attributes are specified to be normally distributed, as consumers’ WTP could logically be either positive or nega- tive. Equation (2) is re-parameterized as follows. 𝑈 = 𝛽 ⁄𝜇 − 𝜆 𝑃𝑟𝑖𝑐𝑒 + 𝜆 WTP 𝑋 (3) 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑛 0 𝑛 𝑛 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑛 𝑛 𝑛𝑗𝑡 where 𝜇 is a scale parameter. 𝛽 denotes the coefficient vector of the specified non- 𝑛 𝑛𝑚 price attribute 𝑋 (i.e.,𝑀𝑒𝑎𝑡 , 𝑂𝑚 3 , 𝑅𝑓𝑎𝑡 , 𝑎𝑙𝑡𝑅𝑠 ). The utility coefficients are de- 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑗𝑡𝑛 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑛𝑗𝑡 𝑛𝑗𝑡 fined as 𝜆 = 𝛽 ⁄𝜇 , 𝑐 = 𝛽 ⁄𝜇 and WTP = −𝑐 ⁄𝜆 . Only main effects were evalu- 𝑛 𝑛 1 𝑛 𝑛 𝑛𝑚 𝑛 𝑛 𝑛 𝑛 ated in the model. 2.4. Statistical Analysis Paired sample T-tests were performed to analyze sensory liking data with different samples (conventional vs. omega-3 samples in the blind condition) and under information conditions (before vs. after the information disclosure of omega-3 fatty acid). Estimation of RPL and WTP parameters was achieved through the simulated log-likelihood method [30,36,37], using 2000 Halton draws. All data analyses were run by Stata 17 software (StataCorp. 2021. Stata Statistical Software: Release 17. College Station, TX, USA: StataCorp LLC.). 3. Results 3.1. Participants Table 2 reports participants’ socio-economic and demographic characteristics. Ac- cording to Table 1, 57% of the participants were female, 62% were between 18 and 24 years old, and 67.18% had a Bachelor’s degree or above. Overall, the sample population was biased towards young and highly educated participants, with students accounting for a large proportion (74.23%). These characteristics are common in volunteer-based food-re- lated consumer studies conducted on a university campus, especially when sensory eval- uations are also involved [13,39]. The statistics for self-assessed familiarity with omega-3 ratings showed that more than half of the participants claimed to be very familiar with omega-3 (55%) and only 29% 𝑗𝑡 Agriculture 2023, 13, 234 7 of 16 of participants expressed considerable unfamiliarity. Regarding consumption habits, 79% of participants ate processed meat at least once a week. Table 2. Participants’ socio-economic and demographic characteristics. Note: About twenty-five per cent of respondents did not know or preferred not to answer the level of household income, who were assigned an average income level for further analysis. Omega-3 familiarity was self- assessed using a structured 9-point hedonic scale, where 1 = ‘‘extremely unfamiliar”, 5 = “neither unfamiliar nor familiar”, and 9 = “extremely familiar”. Variable Category Frequency Percentage (%) Gender Male 141 43 Female 185 57 18–24 202 62 25–34 86 26 Age class 35–44 23 7 45 and Over 15 5 Education Level Secondary or less 38 12 College credit, no degree 65 20 Bachelor 92 28 Master or professional 102 31 Doctoral or above 25 8 Others 4 1 Student 242 74 Employed Full-Time 64 20 Employment Status Employed Part-Time 16 5 Not Employed 4 1 € 15,000 and below 26 8 € 15,001–€ 40,000 91 28 Household Income range € 40,001–€ 80,000 62 19 € 80,001 and above 64 20 Don’t know or prefer no answer 83 25 Familiarity with omega-3 ratings 1–4 94 29 5 52 16 6–9 180 55 15 or more times a week 12 4 Eating frequency of processed 7–14 times a week 47 14 meat (e.g., sausages, nuggets, 4–6 times a week 74 23 burger, ham, bacon) 1–3 times a week 126 39 Less than once in a week 67 21 3.2. Sensory Liking Results Sensory liking ratings for sausages are illustrated in Figure 1. Under the blind condi- tion, the conventional sausages scored significantly higher than omega-3 sausages regard- ing taste, texture, and overall liking. Similarly, the informed omega-3 sausages scored sig- nificantly higher than that of blind omega-3 sausages, regarding appearance, texture, and overall liking. Consumers held slightly positive attitudes toward omega-3-enriched sau- sages, where mean ratings of appearance, taste, texture, and overall liking were all be- tween 5 (5 = “neither like nor dislike”) and 6 (6 = “like slightly”). This finding agrees with some studies that omega-3 enriched sausages could be produced with appealing sensory properties [3,12,40]. Agriculture 2023, 13, 234 8 of 16 Figure 1. Mean ratings of (a) appearance, (b) taste, (c) texture and (d) overall liking are shown. Error bars represent standard deviation of the mean. ① = liking of conventional vs. omega-3 samples in the blind condition (paired Student’s t-test); ② = liking before vs. after the information disclosure of omega-3 samples (paired Student’s t-test). 3.3. RPL Regression Results and WTP Estimation Table 3 lists the results of RPL model and WTP estimation. Results indicated that participants’ utility and payment intentions were conjointly affected by selected attrib- utes. Standard deviations for almost all estimated parameters were of statistical signifi- cance, meaning preference heterogeneity for selected attributes within the sample popu- lation, so that the RPL model used was more suitable in comparison to a standard logit model [30,36]. Based on RPL results on the left-hand side of Table 3, a negative Constant (neither) coefficient indicated that consumer preferred other alternatives in comparison with the opt-out option in a choice set. As expected, a negative Price coefficient suggested an in- verse relationship between payment and utility. Moreover, significantly positive coeffi- cients of three specified attributes, namely Meat, Om3 claim and Rfat claim, indicated that consumers preferred pork sausages with a higher meat content, an omega-3 nutrition claim and a reduced fat nutrition claim. When only considering main effects, the coeffi- cient of Rsalt claim was not significant, meaning that pork sausages with less salt were not preferred from those with regular salt. However, when considering the two-way interac- tion effects, the two interactive coefficients of Om3*Rsalt and Rfat*Rsalt were both signifi- cantly positive, meaning that consumers’ preference for reduced salt pork sausages sig- nificantly increased when reduced salt pork sausages simultaneously had omega-3 addi- tion or fat reduction. Therefore, more utility was obtained by consumers from pork sau- sages with the reformulation of having a higher meat content, an omega-3 nutrition claim, a reduced fat nutrition claim, a coexistence of an omega-3 addition and salt reduction Agriculture 2023, 13, 234 9 of 16 claim, and a coexistence of a fat and salt reduction claim. Moreover, consumers welcomed healthier pork sausages reformulated by both nutrient “addition” and ingredient “reduc- tion” strategies. Table 3. Results of the RPL model and WTP estimation. Variable RPL Model WTP Estimation Coefficient SD Mean SD Constant (neither) −9.13 *** 6.70 *** −2.61 *** 2.03 *** Price −2.30 *** 1.28 *** −3.21 *** 2.55 *** Meat 7.49 *** 7.42 *** 2.83 *** 2.88 *** Om3 claim 0.91 *** 0.77 *** 0.52 *** 0.51 *** Rfat claim 0.62 ** 0.81 *** 0.50 *** 0.46 *** Rsalt claim −0.13 0.11 0.41 *** 0.36 *** Om3*Rfat −0.21 1.00 *** Om3*Rsalt 0.92 ** 1.77 *** Rfat*Rsalt 1.31 *** 1.14 *** Log-likelihood −2585.83 −2626.92 Wald Chi-Square 821.83 1657 AIC 5207.65 5277.84 No. of respondents 326 326 No. of observations 11,736 11,736 Note:**, and *** denoted significance at the 5%, and 1% levels, respectively. As described above, the price coefficients were assumed to be log-normally distributed, so the original mean and stand- ard deviation for the log of the price coefficients were adjusted accordingly and reported as nor- mally distributed coefficients. When interpreting the coefficient of “meat content”, the coefficient should multiply by 0.1, indicating a 10% increase/decrease of meat content. AIC was short for Akaike information criterion. The right-hand side of Table 3 reports WTP estimation. Overall, consumers were will- ing to pay more for both “addition” and “reduction” reformulation, where carrying an omega-3 nutrition claim elicited the highest monetary reward from consumers and a re- duced salt claim elicited the lowest. More specifically, on average, a consumer was willing to pay 0.52 euro for an omega-3 claim made on a pack of 454 g pork sausages, followed by 0.50 euro for a reduced fat claim, and 0.41 euro for a reduced salt claim. Furthermore, consumers were also willing to pay marginally more for higher meat content in sausages. On average, consumers’ WTP for a 10% increase of meat content was estimated to be 0.283 euro. These results were in line with findings in other studies that consumers de- mand healthier processed meat products [23,41–43] and they are willing to pay more for salt-reduced and fat-reduced processed meat products [6,44,45]. 3.4. WTP Estimation by Satisfied and Unsatisfied Sensory Preference Groups A novel element of this study was the collection of sensory liking data on the physical prototype of omega-3-enriched sausages prior to collecting data on consumers’ WTP in a CBC experiment. Therefore, based on the overall liking of omega-3 sausages, the total participants were classified into two groups: an unsatisfied sensory group (147 consum- ers) who gave overall liking ratings of one to five and a satisfied sensory group (179 con- sumers) who gave overall liking ratings of six to nine. WTP estimation by the two sensory preference groups is listed in Table 4. Agriculture 2023, 13, 234 10 of 16 Table 4. WTP estimation by the satisfactory and unsatisfactory groups. 1 2 Unsatisfied Sensory Group (N = 147) Satisfied Sensory Group (N = 179) Variable p-Value Mean SD Mean SD Constant (neither) −2.78 *** 2.51 *** −2.66 *** 1.68 *** Meat 3.76 *** 3.01 *** 3.03 *** 2.71 *** 0.023 ** Om3 claim 0.35 *** 0.65 *** 0.66 *** 0.36 *** 0.000 *** Rfat claim 0.54 *** 0.61 *** 0.53 *** 0.41 *** 0.865 Rsalt claim 0.42 *** 0.48 *** 0.41 *** 0.31 *** 0.827 Log-likelihood −1226.98 −1376.60 Wald Chi-Square 596.42 733.61 AIC 2477.96 2777.20 No. of respondents 147 179 No. of observations 5292 6444 Note: **, and *** denoted significance at the 5%, and 1% levels, respectively. SD is short for standard deviation. Sensory liking on sausages was evaluated using a horizontal Likert 9-point scale, where 1 = “dislike extremely”, 2 = “dislike very much”, 3 = “dislike moderately”, 4 = “dislike slightly”, 5 = “neither like nor dislike”, 6 = “like slightly”, 7 = “like moderately”, 8 = “like very much”, and 9 = 1 2 “like extremely”. A unsatisfied sensory group indicated overall sensory liking ratings of 1 to 5. ”. A satisfied sensory group indicated overall sensory liking ratings of 6 to 9. p-values were calculated from a two-sample z-test with Ho suggesting a WTP mean difference between the unsatisfied and satisfied sensory groups equaling zero. When interpreting coefficient of “meat content”, the coefficient should multiply 0.1, indicating a 10% increase/decrease of meat content. AIC was short for Akaike information criterion. The unsatisfied sensory group indicated more WTP for higher meat content (0.376 euro) than that from the satisfied sensory group (0.303 euro), which suggested that when consumers were not satisfied with their sensory experiences with omega-3 sausages, they placed more value on the meat content attribute. In contrast, WTP for an omega-3 nutri- tion claim from the unsatisfied sensory group (0.35 euro) was significantly lower than that from the satisfied sensory group (0.66 euro), which implied a relation between a higher level of sensory preference and more WTP for omega-3 enriched sausages. Apart from meat content and omega-3 claim, consumers’ WTPs for pork sausages having a reduced fat claim and having a reduced salt claim were very similar between two different sensory preference groups, which indicated that unpleasant sensory experiences with omega-3 sausages had little collateral influence on consumers’ valuation on sausages reformulated by “reduction” strategies. Standard deviations were larger for the unsatisfied sensory group than the other group, meaning that more variation was observed in consumers who had unsatisfied sensory experiences. 3.5. WTP Estimation by Omega-3 Unfamiliar and Familiar Groups The participants’ self-assessed familiarity ratings for omega-3 fatty acids were col- lected before the sensory test with the informed omega-3 sausages, and results (Table 2) indicated that more participants claimed to be familiar with the omega-3 than to be unfa- miliar. To investigate influence of omega-3 familiarity on consumers’ WTP, the total par- ticipants were classified into two groups: an unfamiliar group (146 consumers) who gave overall liking ratings of one to five and a familiar group (180 consumers) who gave overall liking ratings of six to nine. WTP estimation by the groups of two familiarity levels is listed in Table 5. Agriculture 2023, 13, 234 11 of 16 Table 5. WTP estimation by the omega-3-unfamiliar and -familiar groups. 1 2 Omega-3 Unfamiliar Group (N = 146) Omega-3 Familiar Group (N = 180) Variable p-Value Mean SD Mean SD Constant (neither) −3.17 *** 2.24 *** −3.02 *** 3.43 *** Meat 2.70 *** 2.63 *** 3.45 *** 3.21 *** 0.010 ** Om3 claim 0.46 *** 0.56 *** 0.58 *** 0.48 *** 0.020 ** Rfat claim 0.51 *** 0.47 *** 0.49 *** 0.54 *** 0.721 Rsalt claim 0.48 *** 0.38 *** 0.40 *** 0.38 *** 0.059 Log-likelihood −1192.6727 −1426.8732 Wald Chi-Square 593.13 502.59 AIC 2409.345 2877.746 No. of respondents 146 180 No. of observations 5256 6480 Note: **, and *** denote significance at the 5%, and 1% levels, respectively. SD is short for standard deviation. Self-assessed familiarity with omega-3 was evaluated using a horizontal Likert 9-point scale, where 1 = ‘‘extremely unfamiliar”, 5 = “neither unfamiliar nor familiar”, and 9 = ‘‘extremely familiar”. Correlation between omega-3 familiarity rating and overall sensory liking ratings was 1 2 low (0.0599). A unfamiliar group indicated ratings of 1 to 5. A familiar group indicated ratings of 6 to 9. p-values were calculated from a two-sample z-test with Ho suggesting a WTP mean difference between the unfamiliar and familiar groups equaling zero. When interpreting coefficient of “meat content”, the coefficient should multiply 0.1, indicating a 10% increase/decrease of meat 5 1 content. AIC was short for Akaike information criterion. Note: About twenty-five per cent of re- spondents did not know or preferred not to answer the level of household income, which were assigned an average income level for further analysis. Omega-3 familiarity was self-assessed using a structured 9-point hedonic scale, where 1 = ‘‘extremely unfamiliar”, 5 = “neither unfamiliar nor familiar”, and 9 = “extremely familiar”. The omega-3-unfamiliar group indicated less WTP for higher meat content (0.270 euro) and an omega-3 nutrition claim (0.46 euro) than that from the familiar group (0.345 euro and 0.58 euro, respectively). This result shows that consumers who were more famil- iar with omega-3 were on average willing to give higher payment premiums than their counterparts who were unfamiliar. Similarly, with the satisfactory and unsatisfactory groups, consumers’ WTP for a reduced fat claim and a reduced salt claim were not statis- tically different between the unfamiliar and familiar groups. Hence, the influence of omega-3 familiarity affected consumers’ evaluation of omega-3 sausages, not on sausages reformulated by “reduction” strategies. 4. Discussion This study used a sensory evaluation before measuring WTP for healthier pork sau- sages, with an aim of investigating existing ambiguities on consumer preferences for two opposing reformulation strategies (i.e., nutrient “addition” and ingredient “reduction”) in healthier processed meat products. Results suggested that consumers should be willing to pay higher prices for both “addition” and “reduction” strategies (Table 3) in sausages reformulated to be healthier. The average highest WTP was for an omega-3 claim (under the “addition” strategy category), followed by a reduced fat claim and a reduced salt claim (both under the “reduction” strategy category), and the lowest was for a higher meat con- tent. This challenges a large body of studies, finding that consumers place more value on “reduction” and little value on “addition” [6,8,24,42,46]. Therefore, this study highlights the importance of incorporating a sensory evaluation in the research process. Studies only using survey techniques are useful under the context that consumers often make food- purchasing decisions in the absence of having tasted a given food product. However, con- sumer perceptions and WTP for innovative processed meat products could be altered by the real sensory experience. Grunert, Verbeke, Kugler, Saeed and Scholderer  point out that judgment after experiencing novel meat products is more credible. Prior literature Agriculture 2023, 13, 234 12 of 16 has provided inconsistent conclusions on consumers’ perceptions of reformulated pro- cessed meat from studies with and without a tasting experience. For instance, using a sur- vey, Schnettler, Ares, Sepulveda, Bravo, Villalobos, Hueche and Lobos  found that, on average, consumers are not willing to pay more for reformulated sausages carrying a fiber claim. In contrast, when incorporating sensory evaluations, Huber, et al. , Grasso, Monahan, Hutchings and Brunton , Diaz-Vela, Totosaus, Escalona-Buendia and Perez-Chabela  and Grasso, Rondoni, Bari, Smith and Mansilla  concluded that there are market prospects for fiber-enriched chicken burgers, sterol-enriched turkey, fi- ber-added sausages and vegetable-blended beef burgers, respectively. Moreover, the WTP estimates for nutrition claims of “reduced fat” and “reduced salt” found in this study are similar to Romagny, Ginon and Salles ’s findings of an approximately 12% pay- ment increase for sausages reduced in fat and salt in a home-tasting environment. This is in contrast to Schnettler, Ares, Sepulveda, Bravo, Villalobos, Hueche and Lobos ’s re- search on sausages in a hypothetical setting, which concludes that claims of sodium and fat reduction correspond to marginal price increments of 1.2% and 5.6%, respectively. This study reverses the normal procedure of a concept test followed by a prototype test in terms of developing novel meat products , but is appropriate in investigating how sensory liking affects the WTP for reformulated sausages and can more realistically explore consumers’ perceptions of healthier processed meat. A sensory evaluation helps to reduce hypothetical bias toward healthier meat products and a satisfactory tasting ex- perience helps to overcome barriers to consumption . Results (Table 4) shows that the WTP for omega-3 sausages was significantly different between groups with satisfied and unsatisfied sensory experiences, where consumers who indicated higher liking ratings were on average willing to give higher payment premiums than their counterparts who indicated lower liking ratings. In line with many prior studies, sensory preferences are repeatedly confirmed as one of the most influential factors in purchasing and paying in- tentions for healthier meat products [23,42,48–51] and are positively correlated with con- sumers’ WTP magnitudes for healthier sausages [5,44]. Therefore, compromise on sensory characteristics in exchange for more healthiness in processed meat products may lead to a lower price premium paid by consumers, as Romagny, Ginon and Salles  suggest that when consumers give lower pleasantness scores in comparison with the non-refor- mulated version, they are only willing to pay the same price for the reformulated sausages as for the original sausages. Notably, WTP for salt and fat reduction from the unsatisfied sensory group was similarly comparable with that from the satisfied sensory group. Hence, unpleasant sensory experiences regarding sausages reformulated by “addition” strategies had little collateral influence on consumers’ valuation on sausages reformulated by “reduction” strategies. Furthermore, multiple healthier reformulations of nutrient “ad- dition” and ingredient “reduction” made on sausages could elicit higher utilities than only one reformulation, which agrees with Barone, Banovic, Asioli, Wallace, Ruiz-Capillas and Grasso ’s finding that together with fat and salt reduction, healthier meat products of plant-based ingredients are more acceptable to consumers. The influence of omega-3 fa- miliarity levels on consumers’ WTP for the omega-3-enriched, fat-reduced, and salt-re- duced sausages was also investigated. The results (Table 5) implied a relation between a higher level of omega-3 familiarity and more WTP for omega-3-enriched sausages but had no effect on WTP for fat-reduced or salt-reduced sausages. Hence, there is evidence that consumer perceptions and payment intentions are influenced by their familiarity with the reformulated ingredient of the “addition” strategy. In line with Lahteenmaki‘s studies, unfamiliarity with the nutrient’s health-related claim can negatively impact consumers’ perceived healthiness of novel foods , but when familiar, a claim on the nutrient could increase perceived healthiness and consumer acceptance . This study also found supporting evidence that consumers’ sensory perceptions could be altered by the disclosure of health-related information. In Figure 1, the informed omega-3 sausages were significantly preferred over the blind omega-3 sausages on all sensory attributes except for taste. However, the average taste liking rating for the Agriculture 2023, 13, 234 13 of 16 informed omega-3 sausages (5.47 scores) was numerically higher than that of blind omega-3 sausages (5.38 scores), but the difference was not statistically significantly. In line with findings of some other similar studies, giving consumers health information does not significantly change consumers’ palate and the liking of healthier processed meat products, but it can help to mitigate some unliked sensory perceptions[11,13]. Further- more, some studies also suggest a health-related claim increases consumers’ WTP com- pared to when these products were presented without such information [13,15,54]. 5. Conclusions By carrying out a prototype sensory evaluation followed by a conjoint experiment, this study found consumers were willing to pay more for both reformulation strategies of “addition” and “reduction” in pork sausages. Sensory preferences were an influential fac- tor in WTP, where WTP was positively correlated with sensory liking levels. These find- ings provide important implications for food manufacturers. Although pork sausages are often considered to have an unhealthy food image, consumers still welcome healthier sau- sages and are willing to pay premiums for both nutrient “addition” and ingredient “re- duction” reformulation. Notably, an effective marketing approach is to offer opportuni- ties for consumers to taste the newly reformulated processed meat products, to inform consumers of health-related reformulation information and to continuously optimize the consumers’ sensory experience, especially when many consumers may find it difficult to relate to new launches of nutrient added processed meat products. Limitation and Future Research The limitations to the present study are two-fold. One is that the consumer sample was not a true representation of the general population. Therefore, the conclusions are more applicable to young consumers with high levels of education. The other is the po- tential overestimation of WTP due to using a stated preference approach. Future research is recommended to test a wider range of healthier meat prototypes with representative survey samples. In this study, we argue that incorporating a sensory evaluation produced a more realistic measurement of consumers’ perceptions of two meat reformulation strat- egies. To further confirm the effect of a sensory evaluation in reducing hypothetical bias and skepticism toward healthier meat products, a comparison study should be conducted to verify this inference by allowing one group do a sensory evaluation and not the other group, and then comparing the consumption intentions between the two groups. Non- hypothetical experiments, such as auctions with real money transactions, could poten- tially calibrate the implicit over-stated payment intentions. Author Contributions: Conceptualization, X.H., C.L. and F.J.M.; methodology, X.H., C.L. and F.J.M.; software, X.H. and C.L.; validation, C.L.; formal analysis, X.H.; investigation, X.H. and F.J.M.; resources, C.L., L.W. and F.J.M.; data curation, X.H., C.L. and F.J.M.; writing—original draft prepa- ration, X.H., C.L., L.W. and F.J.M.; writing—review and editing, X.H., F.J.M., S.G. and M.W.; visu- alization, X.H., S.G. and M.W.; supervision, C.L., L.W. and F.J.M.; project administration, X.H., C.L., L.W. and F.J.M.; funding acquisition, L.W. and F.J.M. All authors have read and agreed to the pub- lished version of the manuscript. Funding: This research was funded by the Food Institutional Research Measure of the Irish Depart- ment of Agriculture, Food and the Marine grant number Project 11/F/035. Institutional Review Board Statement: The study was conducted in accordance with the Declara- tion of Helsinki, and approved by the Ethics Committee of University College Dublin (protocol code LS-17-91-Hong-Li and 15 January 2018). Informed Consent Statement: Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study. Data Availability Statement: The data presented in this study are available on request from the corresponding author. Agriculture 2023, 13, 234 14 of 16 Acknowledgments: The authors would like to thank Zhifeng Gao and Emma Feeney for their val- uable opinions on the research design, Vincenzo del Grippo his unparalleled help with preparing lab-made sausages, and Si Wu, Rao Fu, Yujie Shi for their great assistance in executing the sensory evaluation. Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest References 1. Toldra, F.; Reig, M. Innovations for healthier processed meats. Trends Food Sci. 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Agriculture – Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute
Published: Jan 18, 2023
Keywords: reformulation strategy; healthier processed meat; sensory liking; consumer preferences; willingness-to-pay
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