In other words, consumers perceive a product to be more healthful when sporting positive components than those whose claims remove perceived negatives.
The study – published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing – also found consumers expect a claim type to be a strong predictor of the healthiness, taste and dieting properties of the product, even if not explicitly stated or nutritionally corroborated.
Disturbingly though, the study found a number of breakfast cereal brands examined make claims that have ‘almost non-existent or zero correlation to their actual nutritional content.’
FOP claims: facts and fiction
A group of researchers from France, The Netherlands and the US conducted four studies to compile a single comprehensive report that assessed the association of front-of-package (FOP) claims with perceived health properties.
They also looked at the difference between FOP claims and the actual nutritional content, as well as the influence a FOP claim had on consumer purchasing behavior.
The report did not focus on the FOP nutrition information contained in the mandated Nutrition Facts Panels – such as calories, fat, and sugar – but focused specifically on the claims about a product’s health-related properties.
One study tested 633 different breakfast cereals, of which 460 had this type of health or nutrition claim on the front of the package.
In another study, the researchers collaborated with PRS In Vivo, a market research company specializing in point-of-purchase insights, to conduct an online survey among US residents, using a scenario in which the participants were the purchaser but not the primary user of the product.
‘Although the goal of these claims is to create the perception that food is good for health, they do so in very different ways,’ wrote the authors.
Claims can be divided into four focus types:
- On elements that are absent, such as ‘no preservatives’ or ‘gluten-free’;
- On elements that are present, like ‘made with whole grains’ or ‘high in fiber’;
- Implying it has been enhanced, for example ‘high calcium’ or ‘high in vitamins’;
- Implying it has been left untouched, including ‘organic’ or ‘fresh’.
Firstly, the researchers found the positive – versus the negative – frame plays a central role in motivation, emotions and decision-making.
‘Consumers have a more positive attitude toward claims that are based on the presence of something good, compared to claims that are about the absence of something bad,’ they wrote.
A number of breakfast cereal brands, however, make claims that have ‘almost non-existent or zero correlation to their actual nutritional content,’ they added.
However, the study found consumers believe the type of claim could help predict the product’s healthfulness despite the lack of association between claim type and nutritional quality.
‘Claims based on the presence of positive attributes – e.g. ‘high antioxidants,’ ‘wholesome,’ ‘organic’ – were rated as both healthier and tastier than those based on the absence of a negative attribute,’ they wrote.
They concluded nutrition labels were more accurate in giving consumers an idea of how a particular food can help or harm them.
Quentin André, Pierre Chandon and Kelly Haws
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing
Volume: 38 issue: 2, page(s): 172-191
Article first published online February 1, 2019; Issue published: April 1, 2019