Aquaculture for all

Trends in Consumer Attitude and Selection

Economics Food safety & handling

This paper focuses on the understanding of consumer trends, consumer attitudes and consumers selection and preferences in relation to seafood. By Karen Bruns, Aarhus School of Business, University of Aarhus and published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).


Results from surveys of consumption levels in Europe reveal that seafood consumption varies a lot across Europe, not only in relation to frequency of consumption, but also in relation to types of fish products and types of species that are preferred in different countries. In order to understand what drives demand, it is argued that motive or value fulfilment in many situations is a major antecedent for decision-making and food choices. Thus, in the present paper, different attitudes and preferences are discussed, e.g. consumer perception of health, taste, process characteristics and convenience aspects in relation to fish. Results show that consumers perceive fish as a safe, healthy and nutritious food product. Consumers also consider fish as delicate and tasty, while bones are thought of as unpleasant, and fish is furthermore perceived as expensive. When it comes to evaluating fish quality, the handling of fish and the preparation of meals with fish, the results show that light users especially experience more problems and prefer easy solutions. Thus there is a need for a better understanding of how convenience is related to fish attitudes and consumption as well as on the development of targeted new convenience products. The light users need simple information, they need guidance in preparing the seafood and they really would like to have some products developed to address their problems and barriers in relation to seafood.


This paper aims at introducing principles guiding the understanding of consumer trends, consumer attitudes and consumer selection and preferences in relation to seafood. First results of surveys on consumption levels in Europe will be presented, followed by a discussion on how to understand consumer motives and drivers for food and seafood choices. This will be followed by the presentation of results on consumer attitudes and preferences in relation to seafood, with a specific focus on light versus heavy users. Finally, the paper will provide a view on future challenges for the seafood sector.

It is a fact that seafood consumption levels vary a lot across Europe (Brunsø, 2003). Earlier findings have pointed out that the southern European countries as well as the Nordic countries have high consumption levels, with Portugal, Iceland, Spain and Norway having the highest consumption of fish, whereas Belgium inter alia presents a low level of average consumption. The span between the highest and the lowest levels in terms of kilograms consumed per year per person is around 50 kg. In order to have a closer look at the present situation, we have in connection with the EU project SEAFOODplus collected data in several European countries.

Data were collected by randomly selected representative household samples from Denmark (N = 1110), Poland (N = 1015), Belgium (N = 852), Spain (N = 1000) and the Netherlands (N = 809), resulting in a total of N = 4786 respondents. The fieldwork and pre-testing of the questionnaire was handled by local market research agencies. Interviews were conducted in different ways in the five countries: In Poland and Spain, the interviews took place face-to-face in participants’ homes. In Denmark and Belgium, data were collected by mail surveys, with response rates of 79 percent in Denmark and 53 percent in Belgium. In the Netherlands, consumers were asked to participate electronically by means of a web survey. In all countries a quota sampling procedure was applied, with age and region as main control factors.

The person mainly responsible for food shopping and cooking was selected as the respondent from each household, and as a result 77 percent of the respondents in the total sample are females. Except for the proportion of men and women, samples are representative for each country in terms of basic socio-demographics, such as age, education, town size and region. Due to cultural differences, seafood consumption differs across Europe with respect to amount, type of fish and species. In the following sections, the different consumption patterns will be presented.

Overall fish consumption

According to our results, European consumers eat fish 1.49 times a week on average, which is less than the recommended level of consuming fish twice a week. Furthermore, this figure includes both at-home consumption as well as out-of-home consumption, and thus the preparation of fish in the households will be even less that 1.49 times per week on average across the countries included. As can be seen in Table 1, the overall consumption frequency differs significantly from country to country, and while the Spanish consumers eat fish 2.6 times a week on average, the Dutch consumers eat it less than once a week. Thus, Spain is the most fish eating country followed by Denmark where consumers eat fish 1.41 times a week. In Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland it is less common to eat fish and here the average consumption of fish is about once a week. In general consumers primarily eat fish at home, thus averagely 81 percent of all fish meals are consumed at home. The findings reveal that only Spanish consumers live up to the recommendations about eating fish twice a week and suggest that actions should be taken to increase fish consumption across Europe.

Table 1: Average frequency of fish consumption.*

Table 2: Consumption of different product types: shares in total consumption (percentage basis)

Types of fish

In order to investigate how the intake of fish differs in relation to types of fish that are consumed in the five countries, respondents were asked to state the consumption frequency of eight typical European types of fish. Table 2 shows that whole fresh fish, for instance, is commonly consumed in Spain, where it makes up 28.5 percent of the types of fish examined. The preference for whole fresh fish may be due to the fact that Spanish consumers eat much fish and therefore have more experience in handling of fish.

In countries with relatively low fish consumption, consumers prefer more convenient types of fish than in Spain. In Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, consumers prefer filleted fresh fish, pre-packed fresh fish and deep-frozen fish, which are all products that are easier to prepare than whole fresh fish. In Denmark and Poland, canned and marinated fish are the most commonly consumed fish products. Deep-frozen fish is much more common in Poland than Denmark. Results also show that ready-to-eat meals are most common in the Netherlands and Poland.

Fish species

To investigate the consumption of various fish species, consumers were asked to state the consumption frequency of 11 different species. Across the five countries, tuna is the most commonly consumed species, while the consumption of eel and plaice is low in most countries (Table 3).

In Belgium cod and salmon are the most common species eaten, while Danish consumers prefer herring, which accounts for 21.9 percent of the total consumption. Another 18.6 percent of the fish consumed in Denmark are tuna, and 10.4 percent of the fish consumed by Danish consumers is plaice, which is quite much compared with other countries. In the Netherlands, tuna is the most popular species, followed by salmon, cod and herring. Eel counts for 6.6 percent of Dutch fish consumption, which is relatively much compared with other European countries. In Poland, herring is nearly as popular as in Denmark, while mackerel accounts for 18.9 percent of consumption. Poland has the highest share of Alaska Pollock. Tuna and hake make up nearly half of the Spanish fish consumption. The share for hake is much lower in other European countries (1.1 percent to 10.0 percent). In general, we must conclude that species typically consumed varies a lot between countries in Europe.

As expected, we can conclude that there are major differences in the consumption of fish across the five countries in relation to consumption levels and types of fish consumed. But how can we explain this huge variation, and what are consumers really interested in? What are the major trends driving demand on the market side?

Table 3: Consumption of fish species: percentage shares in total consumption per country

Drivers of demand: motives and attitudes

It has been argued that motive or value fulfilment in many situations is a major antecedent for decision making and food choices, e.g. the achievement of desired consequences such as a nice enjoyable meal or the expected health benefits achieved by eating some specific foods (Brunsø et al., 2004). Based on numerous studies, four general motives or drivers for food choices have been distinguished in Europe. They are health, taste, process characteristics and convenience (Brunsø et al., 2002). Health is a dimension that has become very important for many consumers, and consumers form preferences based on this dimension motivated by expectations of both a longer life and one of higher quality (Roininen et al., 2001; Vannoppen et al., 2002). Taste of food has always been of high importance to most consumers: food is a matter of pleasure, and few people eat things of which they do not like the taste (Grunert et al., 2000; Verbeke, 2006). Thus taste and other organoleptic aspects of food, like appearance and smell, are still an important issue for consumers. In recent years, consumers have attached increasing importance to the way food is produced, i.e. the production process has become a dimension of quality, even when it has no immediate bearing on the taste or healthiness of the product. Finally, convenience is becoming more and more important, and from a consumer point of view convenience is much more than just ease of purchase or quick consumption. Convenience means the saving of time, physical or mental energy at one or more stages of the overall meal preparation process: planning and shopping, storage and preparation of products, consumption, and the cleaning up and disposal of leftovers (Gofton, 1995). In the present study, we have also looked into issues of consumer perception of health, taste, process characteristics and convenience in relation to fish.

Overall attitudes and preferences in relation to fish

Our results (Table 4) show that consumers perceive fish as a safe, healthy and nutritious food product. Consumers in the study also consider fish as delicate and tasty, while bones are thought of as unpleasant, i.e. the results confirm that bones are a barrier to fish consumption, as also found in other studies (e.g. Baird et al., 1988), while consumer perception of the smell of fish is neutral (average = 4.01). Earlier studies showed that fish is generally perceived as expensive and, in addition, consumers have stated that they would eat more fish if it was less expensive (Baird et al., 1988; Nielsen et al., 1997). Our results confirm that fish is perceived as expensive, but at the same time value for money is relatively high, indicating that the relationship between price and quality is considered to be relatively fair (average = 4.54). In Belgium and Poland in particular, the price is thought of as very high, which may indicate one of the reasons for the low consumption of fish in these two countries.

Table 4: Cross-cultural attitudes and preferences

Across countries, results show that health is an important motive for eating fish, since consumers in all five countries agree that fish is both healthy and nutritious. Eating fish is also considered relatively safe as opposed to risky, but Polish and Spanish consumers think of fish as being much safer than other European consumers. European consumers generally perceive fish as delicious and tasty, but Dutch consumers are less positive towards fish than other nationalities. As regards the smell of fish, the average evaluation is around 4, i.e. the smell is neither considered pleasant nor unpleasant. Consumers across the five countries agree that bones are unpleasant.

Eating fish is in general neither perceived as trendy nor boring. In Poland, however, it appears that fish is considered trendier than in other cultures, and this may be related to the fact that the price of it is also considered very high, i.e. in Poland fish is thought of as a luxury product. As can be seen from the analysis, nationality certainly has an impact on consumers’ opinions about fish.

Light versus heavy users

Earlier findings have shown that the distinction between consumers with high and low consumption of fish is highly relevant when investigating consumer attitudes and preferences towards fish (Juhl and Poulsen, 2000). In Table 5, the total sample of consumers is divided into three groups depending on the frequency with which they eat fish at home. The groups (excluding consumers who never eat fish) were: “seldom eat fish / light users” who consume fish at home once a month or less; “regularly eat fish / medium users” who consume fish at home two or three times a month to once a week; and “often eat fish / heavy users” who consume fish at home twice a week or more.

The results reveal that 23.6 percent of the consumers in this survey eat fish at home only once a month or less. Almost half of the consumers eat fish between two to three times a month and once a week (47.8 percent), while less than one-third of the consumers eat fish the recommended at least twice a week (28.6 percent).

Four of the attitude statements are closely related to health, and for each of these there were significant differences between the three groups (P=0.000). The table of multiple comparisons showed that consumers who seldom eat fish perceive it as less healthy and less nutritious than those who eat it more frequently, and light users especially consider fish less safe or more risky. When comparing consumers who eat fish regularly with consumers who eat it often, the results follow the same pattern, i.e. heavy users are in every aspect more positive towards fish than medium users.

Table 5: Light versus heavy users of fish

Consumers generally agree that fish has a good taste and is rather delicious, but light users in particular think of fish as less tasty than other consumer groups. The smell of fish was neither perceived as pleasant nor unpleasant, while bones were considered unpleasant by all consumer groups. The study shows that the more positive attitudes consumers have towards sensorial aspects of fish, the more fish they consume.

There are significant differences between the three groups with respect to the four statements about taste, smell and bones (P=0.000), as can be seen in Table 5. However, when comparing the three groups, only some of the mean differences are significant at the 0.05 level. With respect to “Eating fish is delicate” and “Fish has an unpleasant smell”, no significant differences can be found between medium and heavy users. The tendency however follows the identified pattern, i.e. medium users are less positive than heavy users, as expected. Two attitude-statements are related to price and value for money, and as it appears from Table 5, light and medium users fully agree that fish is expensive, i.e. in this respect there is no significant mean difference between these two groups. At the same time, we can conclude that among light and medium users the price of fish is considered higher than among heavy users. The perceived value for money differs significantly between the three groups (P=0.000). As expected, light users consider the value of fish less than others, whereas medium users have the same perception of value for money as heavy users.

We also included questions about evaluation of fish quality. Consumers find it difficult to evaluate fish quality and they do not feel very confident in evaluating safe and fresh fish. The light users especially experience more problems in evaluating quality. They do not feel they know whether they make the right choice of fish, and this lack of confidence in their own ability to choose the right fish in a supermarket, for instance, causes dependence on other people’s evaluations of fish quality and a feeling of lack of control. Finally, we also investigated perceived problems in relation to handling of fish. The ones that eat fish often do not experience many problems and they know how to treat the fish, while consumers eating fish less often experience more problems and do not feel very skilled in relation to either handling or preparing fish.

Future challenges

Based on the analysis above we can conclude that there are significant differences in attitudes and preferences among light, medium and heavy users across Europe, and this emphasizes the need for developing and promoting fish, targeting light users especially. Seen in this light, the topic of convenience becomes very important, since lack of knowledge, skills, abilities and time to prepare home meals influences consumer food attitudes and choices in the direction of more convenience food (Gofton, 1995). We find the same trend in our study in relation to fish, where light users experience more problems. From a consumer point of view, convenience is more than just ease of purchase or quick consumption. Convenience means the saving of time, physical or mental energy at one or more stages of the overall meal process: planning, shopping, storage, preparation of products, consumption, and the cleaning up and disposal of leftovers (Gofton, 1995). Since light users of fish particularly experience these problems when purchasing and consuming fish, we believe that more focus is needed on the understanding of how convenience is related to fish attitudes and consumption, as well as on the development of targeted new convenience products. The light users need simple information, they need guidance in preparing seafood and they really would like to have some products developed to address their problems and barriers in relation to seafood.


This research was performed within the EU FP6 Integrated Project SEAFOODplus, Contract No. FOOD-CT-2004-506359. The financing of the work by the European Union is gratefully acknowledged.


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April 2009

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