A recent study, led by Lalor and her colleagues at the University College Dublin, found that an informed food choice regarding nutrition content from ‘health claim’ labels is only one aspect when consumers choose foods, noting that taste, price and trust in brands have high levels of influence in consumers’ purchase behaviours.
Lalor told NutraIngredients that one of the major issues in consumer perceptions is trust, and who to trust: Do they trust a large multinational company whose claims will be known globally, or are they more likely to trust a smaller local manufacturer who has maybe conducted a couple of product tests?
“There was almost a dichotomy of comments [in our study]. Some individuals clearly felt that large multinationals who had budgets to conduct research were far more trustworthy, because they had the money to test the claim and back it up with research, whereas for others there was a distinct lack of trust for larger companies,” said Lalor.
“Some people felt that when it came to multinationals that are almost the size of countries profit was always the bottom line. They believed that these companies could say and do what they wanted because of the size and strength of the organization,” she added.
Lalor said that these two “very differing views” are mainly based on trust in manufacturers, adding that such trust “is a very fundamental decider for a consumer on whether they will believe what a claim says on a pack.”
Lack of understanding
In addition to looking generically and making statements across the board such as ‘consumers don’t trust or place any stock in health claims’, Lalor said that it is important to break down issues of consumer understanding “to see if these issues are with specific categories … For example is it immunity that’s causing confusion and if so how can we better deal with these claims.”
“I think we need to break it down into different ‘health pillars’, and then identify how consumers react to specific claims within those different pillars,” she said.
Dr Lalor said that is also important to note that health claims regulations not only demand very high levels of scientific substantiation for claims, but also that their use will be permitted if an average consumer can understand them. This is something which Dr Lalor believes is not being adequately reviewed at the minute.
In Europe health claims on foods are tightly regulated, which many argue helps to boost consumer trust. But a lack of consumer awareness of the tight regulations health claims have to meet means that many consumers do not trust them, says Lalor.
“When it comes to nutrition and health claims regulation, it doesn’t mean anything to the ‘punter in the shop,” she said. “The regulations have been in for about three years now but I think it will take a lot longer before the regulations are just part of the assumption from a consumers’ point of view.”
Lalor told NutraIngredients that she believes the best way to build consumer trust is having a good relationship between manufacturers and the regulator.
“If that is seen to be a good relationship, trustworthy, and working, then consumers are more likely to believe in it … They need to believe in what the companies are saying with regards to health claims, but also to know that the regulator is working on their behalf,” she said.