The ethnic food market is an important business in Italy. The consumption of ethnic products is widespread [47
], and this trend is growing [9
]. However, ethnic food is far from being part of everyday Italian life.
The FNS and ODCS indices tested with the Italian sample present a high internal reliability coefficient. Our PCA shows that the two scales are not unidimensional and principally load on two factors. The components identified by the FNS separate the regular and reversed items, reflecting the different dimensions measured. These results are consistent with those of previous studies [41
]. The two components identified by the ODCS recognize the dimensions measured, social interactions, as well as language and mass media use, echoing the findings of Verbeke and Poquiviqui Lopez [39
The Italian sample seems to be slightly neophobic considering that the mean FNS index value is slightly higher than the midpoint of the scale. When we compare this result to the most recent FNS analysis of the Italian context, the samples analyzed by Monteleone [13
] and Proserpio [42
] seem to be less neophobic than ours and find a midpoint lower than the mean value. Although scales adopting different formats are difficult to compare, several studies suggest that a scale with more response options might produce slightly lower scores [51
]. In our study, the 1–10 scale used produced higher scores, which may be attributable to the different sampling and data collection methods applied in the analyzed studies. The data presented in this work were collected from online questionnaires of panels of Italian consumers while in the two studies listed above, participants were recruited on a voluntary basis and completed the questionnaire during experimental sessions.
At the international level, samples showing lower levels of neophobia have been found in other studies [14
] while a mean value higher than the midpoint of the scale used has been reported for Lebanese students [50
]. A comparison of FNS mean scores of various countries could prove useful in providing an overview of food neophobia levels worldwide. However, generalizations and statistical comparisons are difficult to apply because the scale is sensitive to contexts, as highlighted by previous studies [49
The mean value of the ODCS index is instead higher than the midpoint value of the scale, suggesting a quite open sample. In analyzing the sociodemographic characteristics, we found that the description of the neophobic consumer appears to differ substantially from that of the consumer with an attitude of openness. The definition of the characteristics of consumers in relation to unfamiliar foods and different cultures deserves special attention for two main reasons. First, it fosters a comprehension of a growing phenomenon. That is, the increasing prevalence of ethnic food not only reflects the proliferation of social change but also has important implications for the food market. Second, the group of neophobic consumers exhibiting less openness to different cultures might have a less varied diet (e.g., Arvola et al. [18
] and Schickenberg et al. [23
]). The tendency to avoid foods that are different from those usually consumed reduces one’s willingness to try healthy alternatives to known foods [23
]. This tendency also reduces one’s willingness to eat certain basic foods, such as vegetable salads and fish [52
]. A diet that includes as many different foods as possible is essential to health because it ensures nutritional quality and prevents chemical accumulation due to constant exposure to the same substances [53
]. The neophobic trait is recognized as a barrier to diet modification [35
] and has a negative influence on diet quality [54
] while the willingness to accept different food alternatives can be an indicator of the ability to make positive changes in eating habits.
The results of this study show that men are more neophobic than women. These findings are consistent with other studies [13
]. However, the effect of gender on neophobia remains less clear and varies widely across studies on different regions [31
]. According to the data presented here, gender does not influence openness to different cultures. Instead, age seems to play an important role. The results of this study show that levels of food neophobia increase with age, which has already been proven by other studies [13
]. Openness to different cultures instead declines with age and is characterized as an attitude held by younger age groups. Other studies [52
] have highlighted that these results may seem counterintuitive given that with age, an individual should experience more exposure to a broader variety of foods and therefore develop more knowledge of different foods. These factors can promote the acceptance and willingness to try different alternatives. However, such acceptance and willingness could be attributed to a more exploratory and playful attitude even towards food, which can characterize young people, and which can promote curiosity and contact with new foods. Several studies of the Italian context have emphasized that it is precisely young people who adhere to food styles that differ from those of the Mediterranean diet [55
] and who are more open to the consumption of ethnic food [56
]. These attitudes of young people are probably favored by socialization due to the incremental likelihood of one coming into contact with different cultures relative to the past. In the Italian context, which is characterized by a culinary tradition in which food changes occur slowly, another highly interesting aspect concerns the importance of relationships to the acceptance of a new food. The majority of those reporting consuming ethnic food in Italy reported that they had come into contact with ethnic cuisine through relatives and friends. Italy has a strong gastronomic tradition, and the idea of food is linked to the idea of social relations and sharing, not only among Italians. A study recently conducted in Italy has highlighted how food appears as an element of contact and sharing between natives and migrants. Approximately two out of five immigrants interviewed stated that they have cooked their traditional dishes and have taught their recipes to Italian friends and acquaintances [9
]. The social and convivial importance of food and eating practices, which traditionally characterize Italy [2
], is recognizable also in Italian consumers’ relationship with ethnic food. Furthermore, the presence of people of different origins and traditions than the Italian ones becomes an opportunity for culinary knowledge and experimentation.
Education, occupation, and income are considered variables that define the socioeconomic status of a person and that may affect opportunities to be exposed to different foods and cultures [27
]. The impact of these variables on neophobia has revealed by other studies, whose results are confirmed by the findings of this study: Consumers who are more neophobic are less educated [31
], of lower socioeconomic status [31
], and, according to the data presented here, are retired. Conversely, consumers exhibiting an attitude of openness towards different cultures are highly educated and employed. Financial status does not emerge as a significant differentiating variable.
In addition, the place of residence (urban vs. rural) was tested as a variable that could affect exposure to new products and to a multicultural environment. This hypothesis has been confirmed by other studies [27
]. However, in this study, being an inhabitant of a large or small city or of a specific area of Italy was not found to affect food neophobia. This result could be related to unique features of the Italian Peninsula that, given its geographic position, is characterized by migratory flows throughout. Otherwise, an openness to different cultures seems to characterize residents of southern Italy and of the islands and of medium-sized cities (100,000–250,000 residents). The relationship between food neophobia, openness to different cultures, and urban living remains an aspect that deserves further study.
The variable “having children” has a significant impact on both food neophobia and openness to different cultures. The most food neophobic individuals declared that they have children while those with more open attitudes were childless. This variable was analyzed because being a parent and the presence of children in the family could result in a more protective attitude and more mistrust of novelty [29
Recent studies have found that the frequency with which ethnic food is consumed is significantly correlated with levels of food neophobia [39
] and with degrees of openness to other cultures [39
]. Our analysis of this aspect in the Italian context presents similar results. Those reporting never having consumed ethnic food in Italy presented a higher FNS index and a lower ODCS index than those declaring that they had consumed such foods. The results of this study confirm the relationship between food neophobia and openness to different cultures as highlighted by other research [14
This study emphasizes a relationship between the psychological trait of neophobia and attitudes towards different cultures, confirming food’s symbolic and cultural value. The studied aspects are immediately evident for ethnic food. These measures have become a crucial indicator of peoples’ levels of willingness to accept elements of novelty in an increasingly globalized and multicultural society. This study analyzed these aspects across a nationwide sample of consumers in Italy. On the one hand, this paper extends the existing literature by providing additional empirical evidence for the Italian context, which has rarely been studied from this point of view. On the other hand, we present an apparently counterintuitive result demonstrating a tendency for young people to be less neophobic and more open to different cultures. This tendency must be studied in more depth in consideration of further social and societal variables. In fact, even if the rooted culinary Italian tradition may seem to be a deterrent to openness to new foods, the very importance attributed to food can serve as an element that encourages sociality, which seemed to emerge from this work.
The acceptance or rejection of a new food involves a complex psychological mechanism that is influenced not only by personal traits but also by specific behaviors and cultural aspects. While the importance of focusing on personality traits and on food neophobia in particular has been demonstrated in several papers, a comprehensive study of these aspects is required to develop a broader account of the phenomenon in Italy as well as to compare it across different contexts. Contact with different cultures through other people, the mass media, travel, and language studies can affect openness to and acceptance of novelty and diversity [40
]. The fact that these aspects were not measured in our survey may represent a limitation of the study. Future research should therefore investigate in more depth the actual impact of these aspects in modifying consumers’ attitudes.
Another limitation of the study is due to the representativeness of the sample. As described in the method section, only gender and geographical area were used in the quota sampling. However the age of the sample was also consistent with that observed in the Italian population over 18 years old. Nevertheless, other sociodemographic variables (i.e., the size of the city of residence, the educational qualification, etc.) that would have made it possible to have a sample more closely related to the Italian population were not considered in the quota sampling,