Wild mackerel tastes better than the farmed variety. At least, it does if the origin is on the label. But a consumer who doesn’t know where it’s from will taste no difference. This is the claim made by Adriaan Kole in Food and Quality Preference.
‘Information on the label plays a big role in our evaluation of products. If you ask people why they buy something, they say it’s because of the taste, by which they mean their taste buds. But we found that this is roughly thirty percent untrue. Even if the information on the label is false, it still influences the taste. So the experience of taste is a combination of the taste in your mouth and your ideas about the product.’
The influence of labelling is not the same for all products. ‘Say I drink two litres of cola a day. Then I will certainly taste the difference between ‘the real thing’ and the house brand. But if I only drink it occasionally, then I’ll experience the difference mainly because of the different packaging. This is how it works with mackerel, something people don’t eat every day. In such cases, your ideas have more influence than your taste buds.’
Kole conducted the research in nearly five hundred households, which were supplied with the fish to prepare and eat. One group got fish with no information, the second group got ‘wild fish’ and the third got ‘farmed fish’ with positive information about the farming method. They were also given information about price and freshness. Afterwards, all the family members filled in a questionnaire. Kole: ‘We wanted to find out what the influence of information was in the busy home environment. If you find a difference in this context, it really is significant. The price turned out to be very important too. The more expensive the fish, the better it was considered to be.’
‘We had expected that positive information about farmed fish would have a positive effect. Since most consumers know very little about the advantages of farming, we thought it would be easy to teach them something about it. But their new knowledge did not lead them to make a positive judgment: on the contrary. Consumers assume that farming has a negative effect on the taste, and it is not easy to change that assumption.’
For fish farmers, this means that they would be well advised to polish up their image, thinks Kole. By emphasizing that fish farming is more sustainable than industrial fishing, for example.