The Netherlands is a prominent apple country. Now that the bar in the field of sustainability - for example, less use of plant protection products - is getting higher and higher, it is important to grow new robust varieties with minimal environmental impact.
At WUR Open Teelten in Randwijk, new apple varieties are being tested for susceptibility to diseases and pests, among other things. 'But these new robust apple varieties must of course be in line with consumer taste preferences', says Frans Verhees, researcher in the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour (MCB) group.
This is a challenge, because in the long time (about 8 years) between the testing and selection of new varieties and the moment when these varieties become available to consumers, consumer taste preferences can change and markets can change, grow, shrink or even disappear altogether. 'Where the large food companies have professionally organised the taste research and marketing of new products, this is not yet the case in the fruit sector with its many independent, small and medium sized companies', says Verhees. Together with colleagues from WUR Open Teelten, MCB is therefore helping the fruit sector to set up a selection process for new varieties based on cultivation criteria, social goals and market potential.
A slightly sweeter apple
Tastes differ and change, says Verhees. Young people often prefer a slightly sweeter apple, for example. You see more and more apple varieties being brought onto the market, aimed at specific target groups, such as schoolchildren, young people, adults and the elderly. A market-oriented selection process takes account of market segments that are dynamic. Our research is aimed at gaining a better insight into this: for example, is taste preference mainly linked to age - and does your taste change as you get older? Or do taste preferences change with generations or cohorts? 'With our project we translate the latest scientific insights in the field of product development, co-creation, segmentation and differentiation, sensory research and consumer behaviour into a contemporary innovation model for the fruit sector.'
Mobile taste laboratory
In addition to the deployment of an expert panel for sensory research that assesses potential new varieties for characteristics that consumers find important in their choice of fruit, the researchers also involve different groups of consumers. 'We are conducting consumer research in supermarkets and have set up a mobile taste laboratory in a caravan, which we will use to visit secondary schools. This form of co-creation, in which new products are developed together with consumers, as it were, and the developers receive direct feedback from consumers, increases the chance of success when introducing new products.'
The project partners - the seed breeders, nurserymen, fruit growers and wholesalers - who participate in the research will of course be the first to benefit from the research. 'They can directly apply the results in practice and will soon be able to make a better choice of varieties for their own marketing and brand strategy', says Verhees.
In-depth scientific research
But the impact reaches even further, he says. 'In time we will have a database with all kinds of information about varieties, including genetic, technical, physiological and sensory information as well as knowledge about consumer preferences. This database will enable us to carry out further in-depth scientific research. For example, to gain insight into the relationship between variety traits and consumer preferences and to gain knowledge about the changes in or, on the contrary, the stability of consumer preferences. In this way, science feeds practice, but practice also feeds science - in interaction.'
At the moment the research is still focused on the fruit sector in the Netherlands, but Verhees expects that the research will also provide international tools. 'And other sectors with a similar context of many small and medium-sized companies - think of the vegetable sector or the fish sector, for example - can also benefit from the insights we are currently gaining.'