Official communications about the health risks associated with a food lose credibility with consumers when they are exposed to new information emphasising the benefits of that food – regardless of the source of the new information.
These are the findings of a study that has been completed as part of the European Commission-funded FoodRisC project with the aim of investigating how consumers react to food risk and benefit messages which they perceive to be conflicting.
“This research revealed the potential for the communication of health risk and benefit messages about the same food to lead to consumer perceptions of conflicting information,” lead researcher Áine Regan told FoodNavigator.
She explained: “This research found that new information emphasising the benefits of a food which was perceived to contradict older risk messages, led consumers to judge the original risk communication as having lower credibility, regardless of who communicated the new information.”
The researchers used communications about red meat consumption to investigate how consumers react to risk and benefit messages relating to the same food, as red meat has received heightened attention in the public domain for its links to both positive and negative health consequences.
“Whilst red meat offers health benefits in the form of a source of high value protein and essential minerals like iron, zinc and vitamin B12, it is increasingly receiving attention for associations with negative health consequences such as cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer,” said Regan.
803 adults from eight EU countries were presented with a message about the risks of consuming red meat from a national food safety body. This was followed by a second newer message, also from the food safety body but delivered via a third party. For half of the participants, this second message was confirmatory, but for the other half it was a conflicting benefit message advising them to increase intake. Half of the sample received this second message via an anonymous online author (low trust communicator), whilst the other half received it via the national doctor’s association website (high trust communicator). Participants rated the extent to which they thought the information they had read was accurate, believable and credible.
New information emphasising the benefits of red meat and perceived to contradict older risk messages led to judgements that the older risk message was less credible.
“These findings have important implications for official communicators who seek to minimise the confusion, uncertainty and frustration felt by consumers in the face of numerous and often conflicting food messages,” wrote the researchers.
Elaborating on this, Regan said: “Conflicting messages become particularly problematic when there is a failure to report the necessary detail of the science underpinning a risk or benefit message, as it may impair the readers’ ability to make sense of the information.”
She said there had been many positive initiatives to engage and educate journalists in better practices of science communication and suggested there may be value in extending such initiatives to target influential online social media users who may be communicating to the public about dietary health.
Source: Food Quality and Preference
Published: in press, accepted manuscript
“The impact of communicating conflicting risk and benefit messages: an experimental study on red meat information”