Research: Religion Affects Consumer Choices on Specialty Foods

February 5, 2019

3 min read

Food is a major part in most religions. Seventh-Day Adventists usually avoid eating meat and highly spiced food. Traditional Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Orthodox Christians have traditionally observed a meat-free day, especially during the solemn season of Lent. Some Christian denominations allow moderate drinking of alcohol, while others, like Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals either avoid or strictly prohibit the consumption of alcohol.

Muslims are not supposed to eat pork or drink alcohol; they perform ritual slaughter, with the blood drained out, much like the Jewish tradition, of animals that they are permitted to eat.

Observant Jews are the most wrapped up in laws pertaining to food, as only certain mammals, fish, and poultry and birds can be consumed; one must wait several hours after eating meat to begin eating dairy and never eat them together; and rules of ritual slaughter are very strict, and the consumption of blood that has not been drained out with salt is forbidden.

All religions advocate eating food that promotes good health.

Now, researchers at Arizona State University have examined the influence of religiosity – or how religious a person is – on the types of foods they buy in the store and eat. Prof. Kathryn Johnson, psychologist at the university, and her colleagues also examined which moral beliefs were behind the types of food they chose. The study included 1,700 people across the US.

“Often, people make intuitive decisions about food that could require more careful thought,” said Johnson.  “People might make choices based on a cultural narrative or their religious and moral beliefs, without giving measured thought to whether there is a better option.”

The researchers suggested the idea that highly religious consumers would be accepting of special food restrictions such as sugar-free, gluten-free and fat-free, based in part on scriptural condemnation of gluttony – and the fact that some religions provide dietary guidelines. Previous research also suggested that highly religious consumers don’t buy sustainability-minded foods because they don’t want to be associated with groups that promote environmental issues.

The new study found that, in fact, diet-minded food products do have a special appeal for religious consumers – probably because they generally give high priority the moral principle of purity, and purity is associated with self-control and behaviors such as restrictive diets.

On the other hand, the researchers saw mixed results on the issue of whether religious people specifically avoid sustainability-minded products such as organic and natural foods. One of the experiments found that religiosity does have a negative correlation with such foods, but the others found no correlation.

In their examination of which moral beliefs influence food preferences for religious and secular people, the researchers focused on the moral foundations of “care” and “purity.” Care includes feelings of empathy and compassion toward others and has been linked to environmentalism. Purity is linked to attendance at religious services, cleanliness and self-discipline.

“People have different moral intuitions or foundations,” Johnson said. “Some people might be motivated to avoid harming others, including animals, while others might be driven by loyalty to their group or avoiding pathogens.”

According to the research, the moral foundation of care drives the choice of sustainability-minded food products, and the moral foundation of purity is behind the choice of diet-minded foods. The combination of those values in many religious people could explain why most of the experiments found no relationship between religiosity and sustainability-minded food consumption.

Still, “we can surmise that highly religious individuals may seek to be ideologically pure by actually rejecting organic or natural food products,” the researchers wrote. “As such, marketers can leverage this knowledge to design better products and marketing communications to address the moral foundations driving special food consumption.”

Overall, the research illustrates that there are plenty of opportunities for vendors of specialty food products, the team concluded. Marketers could consider integrating religion to create target markets for certain products, and they could pursue subtle ways to highlight the fit between specialty food products and a consumer’s religion – such as using the words “pure” and “purity” in labeling and advertising.

“The findings from our work can directly help businesses promote food products to specific groups of people without potentially alienating customers by including religion,” commented Prof. Richie Liu of Oklahoma State University’s school of marketing and international business and a co-author of the paper.

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