Asian vegetables, a diverse group of specialty vegetables grown and consumed throughout Asia, are becoming an integral part of the American diet. The demand for Asian vegetables is rapidly increasing in the United States thanks to increasing ethnic diversity in the population, a rapid rise in popularity of Asian cuisines, more emphasis on healthy and specialty foods, and increasing familiarity with the foods' culinary uses.
Local or direct marketing of horticultural food crops is rapidly expanding in the Midwest as consumers desire high-quality, fresh produce and want to support local farmers. To better understand consumer attitudes regarding Asian vegetable crops, researchers from the Department of Plant, Soil, and Agricultural Systems at Southern Illinois University conducted a survey in two direct-market venues to determine key attributes that influence Asian vegetable purchase decisions, including consumption habits and knowledge of preparation and use.
To gauge their familiarity with a range of Asian vegetables, consumers were asked to complete a written survey as they entered two fruit and vegetable markets in Belleville, Illinois, on busy Saturday mornings. The surveys revealed that most of the consumers had never tried most of the fourteen Asian vegetables listed in the survey. More than 80% of the participants had not tried nine different vegetables: bitter gourd, chinese mustard, chinese okra, chinese winter squash, chinese winter melon, japanese snake gourd, kabocha squash, winged bean, and yardlong bean. Surprisingly, nearly half of the respondents had tried napa cabbage and Asian eggplant.
Although more than 80% of the people surveyed consumed less than five pounds of Asian vegetables per year and ate them less than once per month, the consumers expressed a strong interest to learn more about these vegetables. Consumers purchased Asian vegetables most often at supermarkets (29.4%) and restaurants (28.1%), and much less at local markets (12.5%). Results also indicated that Asians as well as consumers with higher income levels were most likely to consume these vegetables. Thirty-eight percent of consumers strongly indicated that the availability of recipes for various Asian vegetables at direct markets would increase the likelihood of purchasing the vegetables. More than one-third of survey respondents said that access to recipes would persuade them to purchase fresh Asian vegetables.
Of the consumers surveyed, 97% were non-Asian and unfamiliar with most Asian vegetables. The survey showed that although non-Asians have some interest in the vegetables, Asians were more likely to purchase and consume them. S. Alan Walters, principle author of the study, says the survey resulted in some practical advise for vegetable growers and retailers, including an opportunity to increase Americans' consumption of Asian vegetables by educating non-Asian consumers about them.
Walters explained, "Education efforts to promote alternative vegetable consumption should work with existing consumer attitudes and behaviors defined by our survey. Because consumer willingness to learn more about Asian vegetables was highly correlated with their total annual consumption, education efforts should probably be concentrated on increasing Asian vegetable consumption for those consumers that tend to purchase the two most popular crops (napa cabbage and Asian eggplant). Promotional activities (e.g., recipes at the point-of-purchase) should be developed around these crops and related to one of the most likely previous exposure venues—restaurant dining or supermarkets—as opposed to direct markets."
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