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Novelty Seeking and the Omnivore’s Dilemma

Ethan Watters | February 6, 2024

Food | The Originate Initiative

Some people seek out novel foods, while others don’t. Both strategies offer advantages.

It is a judgment call, but humans likely take the prize of the top omnivore in the animal kingdom. At the very least, we’re right up there with raccoons and bears. Our evolved digestive system is the proof. We can eat foods like garlic, citrus fruits, chocolate, onions and hot peppers that other mammals avoid. But while this omnivorous approach is a trait for the population of humans at large, it isn’t the case for all individuals. Some of us just don’t like to try unfamiliar foods. How did we get here? And how does this paradigm influence the changing world of culinary curiosity?

This reality can pose a challenge for food innovators: how to develop new and exciting flavors, while also keeping a sense of the familiar to help attract people to try new things and expand their palates. According to the Datassential 2024 Food Trends Report, in order to satisfy the urge to try something new but feel safe for consumers, the food industry is leaning into “newstalgia” (new nostalgia) innovation — classic flavors in new exciting formats.

In our evolved psychology, we have two opposing strategies regarding novel foods. The so-called “omnivore’s dilemma” describes the potential risks and rewards of eating from a wide variety of possible foods. So-called “food neophobics” — those who feel disgust or fear when served an unfamiliar food — will avoid potential illnesses, allergic reactions or other adverse reactions by sticking to what they know. They are not just being fussy — neophobics have both a psychological and physiological response to an unfamiliar food — their pulse and breathing speed up, and they can begin to sweat.

On the other end of the spectrum are the “food neophiliacs,” who are always looking to explore a more varied diet. Such adventurous eaters were likely better at adapting to times of scarcity in human history by discovering new food sources. Because both eating strategies have evolutionary advantages, we can still find neophobes and neophiliacs in the human population.

From Picky Eaters to Culinary Explorers

You may not currently be a picky eater, but you likely once were. As toddlers start feeding themselves, they tend to have strong preferences for familiar dishes and a strong aversion to new foods. As we age through adolescence, most people lose the trait and begin expanding their palates. Some even become passionate neophiliacs, traveling the world scouring the back of menus for the dishes they’ve never tried.

Most of us land somewhere in the middle, motivated by what economists call a “variety drive.” We might eat the same breakfast every day and pack a routine lunch, but if you serve us the same dinner every night of the week, we’ll start to get bored and yearn for something new.

Where you eventually land on the spectrum of food neophobes to neophiliacs likely reflects early food exposure, tastes you picked up through your mother’s milk, and a variety of personality traits. There is also new research on genetic differences that make neophobes averse to particular tastes.

But it’s not just our personal histories and ingrained personalities that determine our interest in new and unfamiliar foods; culture has an impact as well. There are many signs that Americans, on average, are becoming more interested in new and unusual food experiences.

Currently, over 60% of Americans consider themselves adventurous eaters, with 37% further identifying as “spicy food aficionados.” Those studying the shift toward adventurous dining suggest that the pandemic may have been a catalyst. When restaurants and travel shut down, 65% of Americans dedicated themselves to creating culinary adventures in their kitchen. Currently, the average home cook tries six new recipes each month.

of Americans
consider themselves adventurous eaters
of Americans
further identify as “spicy food aficionados”

The trend of younger generations seeking more novelty is clear. When surveyed, over half of millennials say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers unfamiliar dishes or flavors. Only one-third of consumers over 35 expressed a similar sentiment. Gen Z is even more interested in variety. Nearly half reported trying one new beverage and one new packaged food every month.

The Challenge for New Food Products

Despite the cultural trend toward food neophilia, introducing truly novel products to the marketplace can be daunting. Our relationship with food is more intimate than any other product we routinely buy.

We might try a new clothing style on a whim, but our reaction to trying a new food is more psychologically complex. Our reactions of disgust can surprise us with their force.

Sometimes, our rejection of a new food has little to do with the ingredients but with how we perceive the technology or process by which it is made. New methods, like 3D printing or meat produced from stem cells, can be perceived as unnatural and trigger neophobia. Many processes, such as milk pasteurization, faced skepticism when first introduced. To adopt a food created with a new technology, consumers must first learn the added value (safety, extra health benefits, sustainability) of a new technology.

What’s Next?

In general, the cultural movement toward food neophilia is a positive one. Not surprisingly, people who restrict their diets to only a few foods are often more prone to nutritional deficiencies. Several studies have suggested that the micro- and macronutrients we get from a varied diet are critical to our physical and mental health. Other studies indicate that adventurous eaters also tend to be lower on body mass indexes.

The trend toward adventurous eating has mirrored the diversification of the American population. Today in America, even small towns can support restaurants and grocery stores catering to different cultural tastes. In home kitchens, adventurous eaters report reviving and reimagining dishes from their family or cultural heritage.

As adventurous eating becomes the norm, culinary innovation increases. The enthusiastic neophiliacs of the world are forging new and growing markets for innovators experimenting with new combinations of ingredients and flavors. This provides exciting opportunities for food companies to try new approaches, to dream up new products or put creative spins on existing products. The market for innovation is growing and shows no sign of stopping. This journey into a new world of food options is a testament to our ever-changing relationship with food and the endless possibilities it holds for our palates and cultures alike.

Innovators at Hormel Foods are watching the increasing consumer interest in novelty and new combinations of flavors. “We are definitely staying conscious that tastes are changing and becoming more adventurous,” said Nick Miller, senior innovations manager at the Planters® brand. “To innovate new products, we are always tasting new flavor profiles at the bleeding edge of culture, looking to be a little ahead of the bell curve.”