12 July 2019

Food Package Health Claims

Welcome back. Growing up in the 1940s, the only cold cereals we ever saw were Corn Flakes, Wheaties and Rice Krispies and later Cheerios. Kix was available, but my mother thought it was too sweet; we already had too many cavities.

Wheaties cereal box in 1945
(from cerealpriceguide.blogspot.com/2013/04/).
One thing I knew for sure was that whatever the front of the cereal box said was true. Wheaties was the Breakfast of Champions. Rice Krispies did go Snap! Crackle! Pop!

Nowadays, well, what exactly do claims like low fat or low sugar or high fiber mean? Not much, according to a study by researchers from Erasmus University, INSEAD and Vanderbilt University. They found those claims can be very misleading, especially about nutrition and health.

Health Claims Analysis Framework
The researchers first developed a framework for analyzing food products’ front-of-package claims about health-related properties. They defined it by: 

  (1) The extent to which a claim promotes the presence of positive attributes (e.g., protein) or absence of negative attributes (sugar), and
  (2) Whether a claim promotes nature (natural, unaltered qualities) or science (scientifically improved qualities).

The presence-absence, nature-science framework and the four types of claims (from journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0743915618824332).
In their framework, science-absence claims address removing negatives (e.g., “low fat”), science-presence claims, adding positives (“probiotics”); nature-absence claims address not adding negatives (“no artificial colors”), nature-presence claims, not removing positives (“unprocessed”).

Four-Part Investigation of Health Claims
They then conducted a four-part investigation.

Part 1: Methodology
After reducing the number of health claims on packaged foods sold in the U.S. from 107 to 37, the researchers had 75 to 83 participants rate each claim in their framework.

37 claims rated in presence-absence, nature-science framework: solid circle--not removing positives, solid triangle--adding positives, open circle--not adding negatives, open triangle--removing negatives (from journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0743915618824332).
The results showed fairly equal clusters in each quadrant, supporting the framework’s validity and the classification’s robustness across socio-demographic factors and attitudes toward nutrition.

Part 2: Relating Claim to Nutrition
The researchers then focused on 460 breakfast cereals that made health or nutrition claims in March 2017. They categorized the 54 distinct claims in their framework. They also obtained each cereal’s British Food Standard Agency (FSA) score, a numerical rating of the product’s nutritional quality.

Relating the claims to the FSA scores showed that the type of claim was completely uncorrelated with nutritional quality. There was no relationship.

Part 3: Relating Claim to Perceived Benefits
To assess consumer-perceived benefits of food claims, the researchers had 363 participants evaluate cereal boxes bearing 16 types of claims, four from each framework cluster. (For example, the four adding positives claims were “high fiber,” “high proteins,” “high antioxidants” and “high calcium.”) 

The participants were asked to imagine a cereal box with the claim and rate whether they believed the cereal would be “healthy,” “tasty” and “help lose weight or stay thin.”

The analysis demonstrated that inferences about healthiness, taste and dieting did indeed differ with claim type.

For example, science-based claims were perceived healthier than nature-based claims, yet people expected better taste with nature-based claims. For dieting, science-based claims dominated nature-based claims, and absence-focused claims were favored over positive-focused claims.

Effect of claim type on perceived health benefit
(from journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0743915618824332).
Part 4: Predicting Choices from Claims
To further analyze the effect of claim type on preference, the researchers had 611 female participants shop for cereal and milk for an imaginary teenager, who preferred either healthy, enjoyable or weight-loss foods.

They chose from 5 cereal boxes and 5 milk cartons. Four of each product had a different food claim, 1 had none.

The participants were more likely to choose products that had a claim, and the teenagers’ preferences strongly influenced the type of claim.

Wrap Up

Front-of-package claims from
three cereals I eat daily.
Front-of-package marketing claims work. They induce consumers to buy the product. 

When it comes to implied health benefits, you can accept the near meaningless low fat or low sugar or high fiber. But why not read the nutrition label and find the actual content? Thanks for stopping by.

Study of front-of-package food claims in Journal of Public Policy & Marketing:
Example articles on study:

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