opinion Flavour FIRSTFlavour will drive growth in consumption of vegetables as consumers respond to taste over perceived health benefits. Words Manus Stockdale, vegetablesWA business and project development manager WITH declining demand for vegetables and Australia’s embarrassingly low consumption of vegetables (we are ranked 85th from 184 countries in vegetables consumption*), how can we increase consumption? For years the focus has been on promoting the health benefits of vegetables to encourage consumption, but new research funded by Hort Innovation suggests that flavour is key. Consumers take for granted that vegetables are healthy, so consumption is largely driven by flavour. In fact, consumers are 2.2 times more likely to consume something they perceive to be delicious compared to only 1.05 times more likely to consume something they perceive to be healthy. The research also showed that consumers don’t know how best to prepare vegetables and are not adventurous – so we need to help them to find new ways to prepare and enjoy vegetables. If flavour is so important to driving vegetable consumption and increasing sales volumes, what do consumers think about WA produce? From informal feedback I receive from consumers about vegetable quality, one of the most common responses is “tomatoes today have no flavour”. The market specifications growers are growing to and wholesale buyers are buying for are not consistent with what consumers are wanting to eat. It seems that tomato specifications have been driven by the requirements of food service, fast food chains and retailers, whose requirements are very different from what the average consumer wants. Fast food wants colour, size and tomatoes that don’t make sandwiches soggy – and that has nothing to do with flavour! vegetablesWA is motivated to drive increased demand for vegetables and to encourage growers to produce vegetables that meet customer expectation and for which they are willing to pay more. Meeting customer expectations will improve returns to growers through increased prices and reduced unsold product. Most growers think that their produce is high quality (even the best!) but there is very little objective measurement of quality in the vegetable industry. Other industries, such as apples, have introduced minimum quality standard and have shown that repeatable eating experiences lead to increased consumption and greater willingness to pay as quality has improved. Consumers increasingly care about not only the flavour of their food, but also who grows it and how it is grown – micro-provenance. There’s no doubt the majority of produce is destined to be sold through the major retailers and that there is little or no connection to the grower. However, building consumers’ appreciation and affinity with the grower needs to be a focus. Building the profile of growers and helping the consumer to have an appreciation for what they do and the struggles they have to feed us is an important part of vegetablesWA’s role. Through publications, such as the WA Grower magazine, and the association’s social media channels, we aim to present the grower as the most important part of the fresh food supply chain. Improving perceptions of growers will allow vegetablesWA to utilise the public’s positive associations when there is an issue, such as water allocation cuts or labour shortages.“ It seems tomato specifications have been driven by the requirements of ... fast food chains and retailers whose requirements are very different from what the average consumer wants When the grower industry is so invested in, and at the forefront of, feeding not only Western Australia, but the nation (and, in some instances, the world), it’s not right that we are a faceless industry. Like winemakers, there’s a heavy investment and skill in perfecting soil and chasing the perfect vegetable. The more we talk about the grower, and the grower puts themselves forward as the professional behind the produce, the better (and better supported) our industry will become. And maybe it will help return flavour, and the grower, to their rightful place – first. Article based on the Hort Innovation Produce Pulse survey (see full story p18). ** July 2023 data by the Oxford University-based OurWorldInData (based on United Nations data).