Once on course, find comfort food

International students' food neophobia peaks at three months, study finds. Paul Jump reports

October 21, 2010

No university refectory is complete at this time of year without assorted groups of overseas students picking bewilderedly over the mysterious foodstuffs on their plates.

But an academic study has found that "food neophobia" - aversion to trying new foods - is actually at its lowest when international students first arrive in Britain and peaks about three months into their stay.

Researchers from the University of Bournemouth surveyed international students enrolled on their institution's master's courses in services management at various points during the academic year. Response rates ranged from 124 to 44. The results, published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, indicate that neophobia peaks after three months before dropping again, but never returns to initial levels.

John Edwards, the head of Bournemouth's Foodservice and Applied Nutrition Research Group, said he had assumed that students would be most neophobic when they first arrived in Britain.

He said more research was needed but speculated that food became a significant issue for international students only once they had dealt with more pressing initial concerns about their courses, accommodation and language ability.

But he was not surprised to find that neophobia was higher among Asian students, who form the majority of those surveyed, than among Europeans. "For Asians, the UK is a totally different way of life and way of eating," he said.

The survey also indicated that students in the UK eat fewer meals than they did in their home countries.

"Students from the Far East normally eat a rice-based breakfast but in Britain, apart from the fact that their mothers are not there to cook it, they have no time so they often go without any breakfast," Professor Edwards said.

Most of the students surveyed lived in self-catering flats and tended to cluster in national groups, he said. Many of them also received food parcels from their home countries and once they found local suppliers of ethnic foods they typically cooked meals with which they were more familiar.

He said the root of food neophobia was the bad reputation of British food in students' own countries. "They think it is high in fat and low in fresh fruit and vegetables," he said.

Universities also needed to pay more attention to international students' potential problems with food, he added, in order to create "a climate for positive learning".

"We are relying more and more on overseas students; we do our best to look after them in terms of education and accommodation but not in terms of food," he said.

His research has prompted Bournemouth to think about setting up informal courses and workshops to introduce international students to British food. "We want to show them there are other things happening in UK food than the kebab and fish and chip shops they see in the high street."

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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