Consumer response to health claims 'should raise alarm bells for regulators'

By Nikki Cutler

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | sergeyryzhov
Getty | sergeyryzhov
Researchers have found that the type of health claim on foods can be completely uncorrelated with actual nutritional quality yet these messages directly influence consumers' expectations of healthiness and prompt their food choices.

Across four studies, published in Journal of Public Policy & Marketing​, researchers developed a classification framework for front-of-pack claims, established the disconnect between nutrition and the claims, and how the types of claim predict consumers' choices.

Pierre Chandon and his co-authors found that consumers expected the type of claim to be a strong predictor of the healthiness, taste and dieting properties of the products. None of the claims the researchers surveyed explicitly said the product would make people healthier or help them lose weight, yet consumers interpreted these claims as such and their perceptions influenced their choices.

"To our surprise, the correlation between the type of 'healthy' claim made and the actual nutritional quality of the breakfast cereal was almost zero, 0.04 to be precise,"​ Chandon said.

"This should raise alarm bells for regulators,"​ said Chandon, "The first principle of regulating marketing claims is to ensure messages are accurate, but policymakers need to go further. Marketing claims must not only be accurate, they should not be misleading in such a way that consumers expect benefits that a product does not deliver."

The framework

The researchers' framework divided front-of-package food claims on breakfast cereals and milk products across two dimensions: Science ("improved") or natural ("preserved") and presence of positive attributes or absence of negative attributes.

This creates four distinct types of claims: Adding positives (eg. 'high calcium/vitamins/protein'), removing negatives (eg. 'gluten-free', 'low salt/sugar'fat', not adding negatives (eg. 'no artificial flavour/preservatives/pesticides', "GMO-free", and not removing positives (eg. 'all natural', 'homemade', 'pure')

Customer consequence

Chandon explained that consumers were observed to have a more positive attitude toward claims based on the presence of something good, compared to the absence of something bad.

For example, breakfast cereals with adding positives claims such as 'high protein' or 'high fiber' and positives claims such as 'all natural' or 'made with whole grains' to be healthier than brands with claims about removing negatives or not adding negatives, such as 'reduced sugar' and 'no additives'.

The reports adds that respondents felt more strongly about nature-based, presence-focused foods health claims and when they see nature-focused claims of health, like "homemade" or "no preservatives", they believe the food is tasty.

The researchers say consumers who have a goal to lose or maintain weight strongly prefer claims that remove negatives, such as 'low fat' or 'sugar-free', unlike those who are interested in healthy eating who favour nature-based claims.

These claims influence perceptions, even when there is no link to actual nutritional quality.

The researchers argue their report could motivate legislators to regulate foods more strictly.

The report states: "Now, regulators are increasingly considering individuals’ perception of food claims and not just their veracity. Although none of the claims that we studied explicitly stated that the product will make people healthier (or help them lose weight or stay thin), consumers interpreted some types of claims as such.

"Our results could, therefore, motivate legislators to regulate some of these food claims more strictly. In particular, we believe that our framework can help identify claims that lead to stronger inferences than others, and that should perhaps be more stringently regulated."

Source: Journal of Public Policy & Marketing

"Healthy Through Presence or Absence, Nature or Science? A Framework for Understanding Front-of-Package Food Claims"

Authors: André. Q., Chandon. P., and Haws. K.

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