Positive mind-set may lead to exaggerated health claim perception, suggests study

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Health claims Functional foods Nutrition

Consumers with a positive view of functional foods are likely to have an exaggerated understanding of the health claims such products carry, according to new research.

The study, published in Appetite​, found that German consumers with a positive attitudes towards functional and healthy products were more likely to make inferences about a product beyond those stated in the products health claim.

“An understanding of factors that make it more or less likely that a claim is understood allows us to design tests of understanding that are targeted at consumers that are especially apt to misunderstand health claims, and to test understanding in situations where misunderstanding is more likely,”​ said the authors, les by Professor Klaus Grunert at Aarhus University, Denmark.

“Our results suggest that people with a positive attitude to functional foods may be a group one should pay special attention to when testing health claims for understanding,”​ they added.

Claim regulation

EU regulations on nutrition and health claims (No. 1924/2006 – found here​) sets down the general requirements with regard to consumer protection: These include that claims are not false, ambiguous or misleading to the consumer; and that claims shall be permitted only if the average consumer can be expected to understand the effects expressed in the claim.

Professor Grunert and his colleagues said that whilst the first objective is mainly achieved via the scientific evaluation of claims – performed by the European Food Safety Authority(EFSA); the latter objective relates more to how a claim is communicated to the consumer, and the way in which it is understood (or sometimes misunderstood).

“This new requirement, in line with corporate social responsibility in the food sector, makes it necessary to establish a standardized methodology by which consumer understanding of the claims can be assessed, and to achieve a better understanding of the factors that make it more or less likely that a claim is in fact understood,”​ said the authors.

They explained that a standardized methodology is needed “not only to assess the degree of understanding of any particular claim, but also to be able to compare alternative formulations of claims with regard to their likelihood of being misunderstood, and in order to monitor understanding.”

Study details

The understanding of a health claim for a functional yoghurt product was investigated with a sample of 720 German participants.

Health claim understanding was measured using open answer questions after viewing a health claim. Answers were subsequently analysed and classified by comparison with the scientific dossier of the health claim.

Based on the analysis, respondents were classified as safe (answers matched the scientific dossier), risky (answers not in line with the scientific dossier) or other (answers expressed a vague notion or an expression that was irrelevant).

In addition to open questions on claim understanding, participants rated statements on claim interpretation on a five point scale, and completed questions on interest in healthy eating, attitude to functional foods, and subjective knowledge on food and health.

Grunert and co-workers found that respondents with a positive attitude to functional foods are more likely to be classified as risky with regard to their claim understanding, whilst people with negative or neutral attitudes are more likely to be classified into the other category.

Source: Appetite
Volume 56, Issue 2, Pages 269-277, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2011.01.009
“Determinants of consumer understanding of health claims”
Authors: K.G. Grunert, J. Scholderer, M. Rogeaux

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