The new European health claims regulation governs the format and content of claims made on products in the EU. But the authors of the new study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Food Quality and Preference, note that food companies can still choose what claims to focus on and how the claim is communicated.
The aim of their study was to explore the impact of health-related messages on perceived healthiness of products, and consumers’ likelihood to buy in four European countries: the UK, Finland, Germany and Italy.
They asked a total of 2392 consumers aged over 35 years to complete questionnaires to establish their perceptions of food’s healthiness, and how their likelihood to buy could be affected. They did not to seek views from younger consumers since previous research has indicated they do not tend to see functional foods as being relevant to them.
The questionnaire gave product profiles based on four dimensions: base product; health claims; pictorial representations; and presence of wholegrain.
The base product variables were cake, bread, and yoghurt with cereal.
The verbal health claims related to blood sugar levels and the risk of type 2 diabetes. The products either had no claim, a weak claim on health effect only (eg ‘Promotes regulation of blood sugar balance’), or a strong claim on the ingredient, short term benefit and long term disease risk reduction (eg ‘Contains cereal-based compounds which balance the blood glucose levels and therefore lower the risk of type 2 diabetes’.)
The pictorial variables were either no picture, a picture representing ‘naturalness’ or a picture representing ‘medical use’ of food.
The wholegrain variable was either no information, or a label stating ‘contains wholegrains’.
Amongst the findings the researchers found the base product was the most important factor for perceived healthiness. Respondents in all countries perceived cake as unhealthy. Bread had the healthiest perception in Germany and Finland, but less so in Italy and the UK where yoghurt came out top.
All consumers saw products with strong claims as healthier and were more likely to buy them, with the exception of Italy. There, consumers were not likely to buy foods with health claims at all.
In the UK, on the other hand, consumers showed willing to buy foods even with weak claims.
Italians also saw foods with no pictorial images as healthier, whereas the Finnish, German and UK consumers were positively influenced by the naturalness image. Only the Finnish, where functional/medical foods have a longer history of use, were influenced by the medical use depiction.
Wholegrain content was seen as healthy in all countries, but to the smallest degree in Italy, and Italians were the only ones whose purchasing likelihood was unaffected.
Culture and trust
The researchers say the differences could have their roots in history. In Finland, health claims have been used on products for many years and consumers are familiar with them. In Italy, on the other hand, they are unfamiliar.
Functional foods also require a strong element of trust, since the effects cannot be immediately perceived by the consumer. The researchers also acknowledge previous research that suggests consumers that trust the food industry are more likely to buy functional foods than those who do not.
Food Quality and Preference (Elsevier). Published online ahead of print
‘Country-wise differences in perception of health-related messages in cereal-based food products’
Authors: Saba, A; Vassallo, M; Shepherd, R; Lampila, P; Arvola, A; Dean, M; Winkelmann, M; Claupein, E; Lähteenmäki, L.