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«Saoussen LAKHDAR Assistante contractuelle, ISCAE Tunis, Tunisie Doctorante en marketing, Faculté des Sciences Economiques et de Gestion, Tunis, ...»

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Personal influences on the perceived healthiness of food include demographic characteristics such as age, gender, income, education, BMI (Body Mass Index) and diet status and cognitive predictors of health and diet-related behaviours such as health concern, self-efficacy and health beliefs.

In addition to theory implications, many recommendations for management practice could be drawn from the findings of this study. One of the results of this paper shows that Tunisian consumers’ health awareness is rising. However, deep concern about food’s healthiness does not match actual Tunisian food choices. This “attitude-behaviour” gap was attributable by participants to several factors that inhibit healthful choices including price, inferior taste, less of convenience, less of familiarity or ethical concern. As a result, it is important for manufacturers to take into consideration these factors to improve competiveness of healthy versus conventional alternatives.

Furthermore, this study reveals which factors are leading to consumers’ confusion as to what really are functional foods. The first reason of confusion is the multiplicity of products marketed as good for health which not allow consumers to distinguish functional foods from dietetic, organic or light foods. The second reason consists on the fact that the majority of participants seemed suspicious about the real presence of functional components in food. In other words, how can they be sure that the functional food is actually functional? The last reason of confusion is how to measure beneficial or harmful health effects? Identifying these factors may help manufacturers to unravel the misunderstanding, to reduce mistrust and to enhance consumers’ willingness to pay premium price for functional food products. Thus, firms should communicate more effectively to help consumers identify functional foods and understand the impact of such foods on health.

The results of this study may also help manufacturers to identify the most determinant attributes of functional foods for Tunisian consumers. According to the participants in focus groups and in-depth interviews, carrier product (milk, juice, yoghurt, spread, etc.), type of enrichment (omega 3, fiber, vitamin, antioxidant, etc.) and health claim (no claim, health benefit claim, prevention risk claim) may influence consumer attitude and intention to buy functional foods. Thus, it is important for producers to determine the best combinations (carrier x ingredient x heath claim) to encourage improvement in consumer acceptance of functional foods. Besides, this paper provides a list of demographic and cognitive variables that may influence perception of healthiness and attitude toward functional foods. Indeed, manufacturers may achieve a better market segmentation on the basis of these criteria.

Finally, concerning policy implications, this study may help government to understand Tunisians’ relation to food and health and identify the approaches that should be employed to change unhealthy food choices. Moreover, Tunisians’ confusion and lack of trust on functional foods mainly leads to an unclear and inconsistent regulation of the functional foods market. Consequently, government should design a clear labeling regulation concerning the type of functional ingredients allowed including vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, fiber, various plants extracts, etc. and in which carrier products they can be. Furthermore, regulation should bring to light a clear list of health claims based on evidence accepted by the whole scientific community to avoid not accurate claims that could mislead consumers. By this way, consumers’ information and protection could be enhanced in order to facilitate functional food choices.

Methodological considerations and limitations A qualitative approach was appropriate for this study but led to some limitations related mainly to reliability and validity of the collected data. While these two terms are generally applied to quantitative data, many researches promote their use to enhance the rigour of qualitative researches.

In order to increase reliability (also called dependability), which refers in qualitative research to the stability of data over time, triangulation was adopted by using three different projective techniques in conjunction with two different methods of data collection: in-depth interviews and focus groups. Moreover, all discussions were moderated by the same person (one of authors), in the same conditions. However, authors’ characteristics and background may influence the collection and the interpretation of data. The results of this study may be influenced by the outcomes of other studies. For example, the dimensions of attitude of Tunisian consumers toward functional food were largely similar to the dimensions found by Urala and Lähteenmäki (2004). Besides, the complexity of data collected from projective tools may lead to an important degree of subjectivity in data interpretation particularly in the case of analogy and story completion.

Concerning internal validity (also called credibility), to maximise the accuracy and the defensibility of findings about the studied individuals, homogenous focus groups regarding age and socio-economic situation were formed. Moreover, as it is difficult to obtain accurate information by direct questioning because of the social desirability which may inhibit respondents’ spontaneity and lead them to hide their real thoughts and feelings and give socially acceptable and standard answers, the use of projective techniques helps obtaining more accurate and credible information.

Finally, external validity (also called transferability) which refers to the fact that the findings of the study can be generalized to all population was maximized by recruiting participants with different age, gender and socio-economic situation. However, due to the voluntary nature of the study and resource constraints, the number of participants in focus groups and in-depth interviews was too small (n=34) to be representative of the whole Tunisian consumers and to ensure theme saturation and the composition of in-depth interviewees regarding gender was different of focus groups’ respondents composition (7 women and 3 men). Moreover, all participants were recruited in Tunis which may also limit the generalizability of the findings.

Implications for future research This paper is a part of a doctorate research. According to the findings of this exploratory study, several areas of research require further investigation. As many themes including importance of health dimension in food choice, healthiness perception and attitudes toward functional foods were studied at the same time in both in-depth interviews and focus groups, understanding consumers’ perception of functional foods may require deeper investigation. A next step will be a laddering study in order to identify consumer’s cognitive structures concerning functional foods by exploring the sequence: “attitude, consequence, value” and to understand the motives behind the purchase of functional foods.

Furthermore, a quantitative survey could confirm and extend the findings of this study. A conjoint study would be interesting to enlighten consumers’ perception of healthiness and willingness to try various functional foods by combining different carrier products, different ingredients, different processing methods and different health claims. The study of sociodemographic and cognitive influences on the functional foods’ evaluation may also be interesting in effectively segmenting and marketing functional foods.

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