Fad Food Use Among Anglo-And Mexican-Americans: an Example of Research in Consumer Behavior and Home Economics

ABSTRACT - To home economists, consumption of fad foods is a behavior inconsistent with nutrition research data. The dynamics of belief in food fad benefits have not been satisfactorily explained by demographic or psychograph-ic studies. The present study compared fad food use in two American ethnic groups. Suggestions for interdisciplinary cooperation in the study of food faddism are discussed.


Joel Saegert, Eleanor Young, and Merry Mayne Saegert (1978) ,"Fad Food Use Among Anglo-And Mexican-Americans: an Example of Research in Consumer Behavior and Home Economics", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 730-733.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 730-733


Joel Saegert, The University of Texas at San Antonio

Eleanor Young, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio

Merry Mayne Saegert (student), The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio


To home economists, consumption of fad foods is a behavior inconsistent with nutrition research data. The dynamics of belief in food fad benefits have not been satisfactorily explained by demographic or psychograph-ic studies. The present study compared fad food use in two American ethnic groups. Suggestions for interdisciplinary cooperation in the study of food faddism are discussed.


Both the American public and their public service representatives are becoming increasingly interested in the nutritional consequences of the products they consume. While such an increase in nutrition interest is a long-sought goal of home economists, some of the nutritional concern has manifested itself in the form of what nutritionists refer to as "fad foods." These products are considered to be a serious problem by many authors in the nutrition area (e.g., Bruch, 1974). Thus, the problem of fad food consumption seems to be an obvious area for cooperation between researchers in consumer behavior and home economics.

The nutrition research community has long refuted claims made by fad food advocates, either by showing that such claims have not been confirmed empirically (e.g., Anderson and Reid, 1974) or by pointing to research that shows that some fad foods can actually be harmful (e.g., Herbert, 1974). From the standpoint of nutrition education, the problem has been that fad food beliefs are held with what appears to be a very high degree of intensity (by certain segments of the population) and also that such attitudes do not seem to be susceptible to conventional educational attempts at combating ignorance and misinformation.

In the area of product attitude formation, consumer researchers have amassed a sizable literature on the multitude of variables postulated to be related to consumer purchase decision-making processes. It seems reasonable therefore to consider the problem of fad food consumption in the light of the theory and methodology which have been developed to study the formation of attitudes about general consumer behavior.

The Problem of Food Faddism

Fad foods, to the nutritionist, include a wide range of products and techniques which are offered to the public through various marketing activities. Some of these include "organic," "natural" or "health" foods, megadoses of vitamin and/or mineral supplements, quick weight loss diets, and more exotic items such as hair restoratives and sexual potency enhancers. In nearly all cases, such products are viewed by the nutrition research community as being harmful or as having little or no value, other than placebo effects, to consumers; these views are based on a broad foundation of scientific research and are supported by Federal agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration (e.g., Fusillo, 1974).

Numerous speculations have been offered to explain the consumption of fad food products in spite of lack of empirical verification of their value. Early hypotheses suggested that the fads were mainly used as "last resorts" by people who were desperately ill or aging and who had not responded to conventional medical treatment (Bruch, 1974; Jalso, Burns and Rivers, 1965). Recently however, researchers have argued that the demographic and psychological characteristics of fad food users "hardly confirm a stereotype of the rigid, stubborn and irrational 'health food nut'" (Calvert and Calvert, 1975). Typically, food faddists have described themselves as young, at least high school educated and in good or excellent health (Rhee and Stubbs, 1976). At least two studies have indicated that faddists cannot be classified as having bizarre or dogmatic personality characteristics (Calvert and Calvert, 1975; Saegert and Saegert, 1976). Thus, to both nutrition and consumer behavior scholars alike, the apparent paradox of an irrational purchase behavior being maintained by people with normal, middle-American background characteristics presents a challenging enigma for study.

An Example of Consumer Behavior/Home Economics Cooperation in Fad Food Research

One possible hypothesis concerning fad food use is that it is in some way associated with a middle-American value system which embraces such beliefs as the need for preventive maintenance and the utility of technological innovation to solve potential problems such as aging or future illness. If so, fad food use can be predicted not to be as prominent in cultural groups which stereo-typically do not identify strongly with American middle-class values. For example, it is possible that Mexican-Americans may not subscribe to fad food beliefs in the same degree as Anglo-Americans of equal education and socioeconomic level.

Rhee and Stubbs (1976), in a study of 600 heads of households in two Texas cities found that Mexican-Americans did not differ from Euro-Americans in their use of fad foods. However, the random telephone sample used in their study contained only 3% (N=18) Mexican-Americans. To further study the hypothesis that Mexican-Americans do not use fad foods as frequently as Anglo-Americans, a larger sample was studied in another large southwestern metropolis which has a large (53%) Mexican-American population.



Approximately equal numbers of Mexican- and Anglo-American shoppers were surveyed at a large shopping mall complex. The mall was chosen on the basis of its location near sizable middle socio-economic level neighborhoods of both ethnic groups. In all, 400 shoppers were interviewed; ethnic origin was determined by the interviewers as each questionnaire was administered.

Sampling was done on two weekends in the spring of 1977. Half of the interviewers were members of an undergraduate class in marketing research and half were members of an undergraduate home economics class in nutrition. A total of 16 interviewers participated.


Shoppers were asked to fill out a questionnaire which contained items concerning several areas; among these were questions about fad product usage, general nutrition practices and demographic classification variables. Six items on the questionnaire were intended to provide information about usage of example products and purchasing practices which are typically associated with food faddism (Bruch, 1974): vitamins C, E, and B complex, "organic" foods, foods purchased at "health" food stores and "other" food supplements (examples were given as lecithin, minerals, etc.).

Earlier studies (e.g., Food and Drug Administration, 1972) have indicated that fad food habits are generally practiced without medical consultation. In the present survey, several items were included to insure that the food behaviors indicated by the respondents were not intended to correct diagnosed metabolic disorders. (Most of the interviewees, 72%, said that their use of the various products had not been prescribed by a physician.) It was also clearly stated on the questionnaire that vitamin usage should include only those products taken over and above "multi-vitamins."

The shoppers were approached in a systematic random manner (every "Nth" person to pass a specified point was approached). Approximately 10% of both ethnic groups declined to be interviewed. Usage rates of the six example fad foods and practices were measured by a four-level classification; the levels were "no use," "occasional use," "weekly use," and "daily use."


The percentage of respondents in each response category for the two ethnic groups is presented in Table 1. As can be seen, significant differences (p<.05) were found for use of vitamins C and E; the difference in use of B vitamins approached significance (p=.08). In all three cases, the direction of the differences was as predicted; i.e., product use was less frequently reported by Mexican-Americans. Significant differences were not observed for use of organic foods, health food stores, or other food supplements.

Thus, slight differences in usage rates were observed for three of six example fad food practices considered in our survey. However, we also observed that there were some small but significant differences between the two ethnic groups on demographic variables, especially age, income and education level. These differences were such that the Anglo sample reported themselves slightly older, more educated and of higher income level (all p's < .02 by Chi square test). In order to control for these differences, we felt that it would be useful to combine the product usage rates for the six fad items to provide a single overall index of food faddism. This score could then be subjected to an analysis of covariance which would compare ethnic groups using income, education level, and age as covariates.

Because of the low frequency of the "weekly use" response alternative, this category was combined with the "occasional use" category to yield a three-point scale. "No use" was assigned a value of zero, "occasional or weekly use" was assigned a value of one and "daily use" was assigned a value of two. The six scores for each respondent were summed to provide a scale which varied from zero (no use of any fad items) to twelve (daily use of all six products or practices). A slight difference in mean total food faddism score between ethnic groups (Anglo-American X=2.51; Mexican-American X=2.38) was found to be non-significant in the analysis of co-variance (F<1.0). Thus, it must be concluded that overall fad food usage, as reported by the respondents in our survey, was equivalent for the two ethnic groups, even though a few differences were noted on three specific vitamins (before age, income and education were adjusted). It is not known whether this indicates that the two groups were equivalent in subscribing to mid-die-American values or that there is simply no relationship between "value system" and fad food practices (as hypothesized above).




The present survey data fail to provide evidence of a difference in fad food use among two American ethnic groups. This demonstration of the null hypothesis is not startling when considered along with other research in the fad food area. Relatively few empirical comparisons have been made between fad food users and nonusers, but those which are available have failed to isolate specific reasons for subscription to fad food beliefs. Moreover, there is no reason to suspect that fad food users are other than healthy, youthful, affluent, educated, normal Americans; the present study merely adds ethnic origin to the list of factors which cannot be used to explain the phenomenon of fad food use.

Such results are also not surprising to students of consumer behavior. Although it is intuitively obvious that demographic and/or psychographic variables are related to purchase behaviors and product attitudes, the consumer behavior literature is notoriously full of reports of failures to pinpoint simple relationships (e.g. Frank, Massey and Lodahl, 1969).

Rather than dismiss the, as yet, unfathomable phenomenon of fad food use by the American public as insuperable, the area can serve as an example of the need for combined effort through inter-disciplinary cooperation. The following suggestions are some areas in which such interdisciplinary efforts may be useful.

Increased use of Empirical Research and Statistical Analysis

While the literature in home economics and nutrition has provided a wealth of theoretical speculations on the dynamics of fad food use (Bruch, 1974; McBean and Speckman, 1974; Schafer and Yetley, 1975), relatively few empirical studies have been undertaken. Also, some of those which have been conducted have not taken advantage of analytical techniques which might tease out explanatory relationships. For example, an important study by Calvert and Calvert (1975) used a standardized measure of the socio-psychological variable of dogmatism to investigate the degree to which fad food users were characterized by irrational belief systems. Unfortunately, the study did not compare food faddists to a control group of non-fad food users nor were the percentages of users holding rational vs. dogmatic beliefs in various categories tested for statistical significance. This study would have been substantially more useful if more rigorous procedures of research design and analysis had been used.

Increased use of Modern Multivariate Analytical Techniques

Marketing theorists have often pondered the relatively low correlations found between personality traits (as measured by standardized tests) and usage of specific products. The answer must lie in the fact that such relationships are too complex to be found through simple one-to-one correlational techniques. In what is now a classic study on personality and product use, Sparks and Tucker (1971) used canonical analysis, a technique which considers complex relationships between sets of dependent variables and sets of independent variables. They found that relationships of relatively high magnitude emerged when patterns of personality traits were compared with patterns of product usage behavior. For example, the trait "sociability" was correlated with one set of products in one personality trait milieu, but was correlated with an entirely different set of products in the context of a different milieu.

Such complex relationships obviously exist in the case of fad food usage. The employment of such multivariate techniques as canonical analysis, factor analysis, discriminant analysis and multidimensional scaling should reveal underlying relationships which can be used to understand food faddism.

Increased use of Consumer Information Processing Models

Recent theory in the area of consumer behavior has seen the development of cognitive information-processing models to try to integrate the complex network of factors which must underlie consumer decision-making. Such models have taken diverse forms; some examples include Howard's recent assessment of consumer behavior from the standpoint of cognitive psychology theory (1977), Bettman's decision-net model (1974) and Kuehn's linear learning model of brand choice (1962). Variables often included in such models are attention and memory, advertising media influence, susceptibility to novel ideas, psychographic factors, and economic market conditions.

Fad food behavior can provide interesting data for consideration in such models. For example, advertising processes for fad food products seem to be different from those of other products. Since the benefits claimed for fad products are not substantiated by empirical evidence, touting such benefits in advertisements is precluded by false advertising laws. Therefore, promotions in ads for fad foods only provide notice of their availability and price, rather than of their proposed benefits or advantages. Claims of powers for such products often appear in articles in health food periodicals but it is left to the consumer to make the connections between the benefits advocated in the articles and the advertisements for the products. Understanding how such processes fit into models of advertising effectiveness would make an interesting contribution to both the consumer behavior and nutrition education areas.


It is suggested that the phenomenon of fad food use is merely an example of a much broader problem in American society. This problem is one in which the "establishment'' sources of information, i.e., scientific researchers, government agencies and the food industry, maintain one position with respect to available evidence, while a sizable group of consumers have chosen to ignore or deny that view. Such behavior is observed in beliefs ranging from the benefits of Laetrile, the safety of food preservatives, and the benefits of acupuncture to such entertaining but widely discussed beliefs as unidentified flying objects, pyramid power and the Bermuda Triangle. The issue involves the overall relationship between consumer attitude-formation and traditional, research-based information. Cooperation among researchers in the fields of home economics and consumer behavior can provide insight into the mechanisms behind such conflict between data and belief. However, we should obviously not expect substantial breakthroughs in understanding this problem without a great deal of concerted collaboration among researchers in consumer behavior, home economics and a host of other disciplines.


T. W. Anderson, and D. B. W. Reid, A double blind trial of vitamin E in Angina Pectoris. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 27 (1974) 1174-1178.

J. R. Bettman, Decision-net models of buyer information processing and choice: Findings, problems and prospects. In G. D. Hughes and M. L. Ray (Eds.), Buyer/Consumer Information Processing. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1974, 59-74).

H. Bruch, The allure of food cults and nutrition quackery. Nutrition Reviews, 32 (1974), 62-66.

G. P. Calvert, and S. W. Calvert, Intellectual convictions of "health" food consumers. Journal of Nutrition Education, 7, (1975) 95-98.

Food and Drug Administration. A study of health practices and opinions. U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, PB 210 978, (June, 1972).

R. D. Frank, W. F. Massy, and T. M. Lodahl, Purchasing behavior and personal attributes. Journal of Advertising Research, 9 (1969) 15-24.

A. Fusillo, Food shoppers beliefs: Myths and realities, FDA Consumer, (October, 1974).

V Herbert, Destruction of vitamin B.12 by ascorbic acid. Journal of the American Medical Association, 230 (1974) 241.

J. A. Howard, Consumer Behavior: Application of a Theory. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co. 1977).

S. G. Jalso, M. N. Burns, and J. M. Rivers, Nutritional beliefs and practices. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 47 (1965) 253.

A. A. Kuehn, Consumer brand choice as a learning process. Journal of Advertising Research, 2 (1962) 10-17.

L. D. McBean, and E. W. Speckman, Food faddism: A challenge for nutritionists and dieticians. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 27 (1974) 1071-1078.

K. S. Rhee and A. C. Stubbs, Health food users in two Texas cities. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 68 (1976) 542-545.

J. Saegert and M. M. Saegert, Consumer attitudes and food faddism: the case of vitamin E. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 10 (1976) 156-169.

R. Schafer and E. A. Yetley, Social psychology of food faddism. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 66 (1975) 129-133.

D. L. Sparks and W. T. Tucker, A multivariate analysis of personality and product use. Journal of Marketing Research, 8 (1971) 67-70.



Joel Saegert, The University of Texas at San Antonio
Eleanor Young, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (student), The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio
Merry Mayne Saegert


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05 | 1978

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