"Culture is sometimes referred to as the software of the mind. It operates in the background and leads us to do things that we don’t reflect upon. We act according to what our cultural identity prescribes and we’re not fully aware of what’s happening." 

—Carlos Torelli

Unlike their U.S. counterparts, French consumers tend to lose their appetite when faced with nutrition information on otherwise tasty foods. Associate Professor Carlos Torelli discovered that when French study participants pondered their national pride and then evaluated cookies and pastas, they perceived the foods containing nutrition information as less appealing.

Torelli explains that French consumers react negatively when they’re reminded of a particular food’s utilitarian purpose because their culture prescribes eating primarily as a hedonistic practice.

"Here in the United States and around the world, we enjoy eating. But in some cultures, the enjoyment of food becomes more of a culturally relevant activity," says Torelli. "The French emphasize the enjoyment of food, and take days to prepare elaborate dishes. In the United States, we view food for the utility it provides—nutrients and calories."

He points out these effects were more likely to emerge when participants were reminded of their French identity.

The findings suggest that while cultural identity is not always top of mind, consumers unwittingly make choices guided by their cultural background, in the supermarket and beyond.

"This is a situation in which you would assume that culture plays no role at all,” says Torelli. “It all depends on the moment you are making the purchase decision, whether you are viewing that decision with a cultural lens, compared to a situation when you have a more utilitarian mindset.” 

In light of these findings, marketers pushing products internationally might consider minimizing markers of nutrition content on food labeling. While it’s common for U.S. companies to emblazon cookies, cereals, and other packaged foods with attributes like “fat free,” it would be wise to relegate nutrition information to the back of the label in some countries.

"In many cases, [marketers] are intuitively doing things because culture is taking over their thinking processes. But if they transfer that problem to a different cultural environment, their intuition might be completely wrong," says Torelli.

Watch Torelli further describe his findings:

 

“It’s Not Just Numbers: Cultural Identities Influence How Nutrition Information Influences the Valuation of Foods”
Gomez, Pierrick; Torelli, Carlos J., Journal of Consumer Psychology (2015)