The new health claims regulation is shaking up the market for functional foods in Europe. The European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) has shown itself to be demanding on the levels of science to back up claims, and so far a very small proportion of disease risk reduction claims proposed have received positive responses.
But a new study accepted for publication in the journal Food Policy indicates that it may not be sound marketing strategy to simply slap an approved claim on packaging and expect consumers to be enthused.
The team of researchers from Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland found that the presence of a health claim could make consumers see attributes like naturalness, tastiness, and attractiveness in a poor light.
The researchers designed a 30 minute questionnaire which was filled out online by 4612 respondents from Nordic countries.
The respondents were asked for information on monthly use of pork, yogurt and bread products. If they were users, they were shown four product descriptions. One of these bore no health claim, and the other three bore claims that differed on structure, active ingredient, outcome benefit and framing.
The participants were then asked to rate the product on eight criteria: attractive to me; attractive to my family; healthy; natural; tasty; and ability to lower the risk of cardio-vascular diseases, dementia and weight gain.
When the team analysed the results, they found that idea of a ‘healthy halo’ – that is, the healthy attributes having an impact on other product attributes – was not in evidence. Naturalness was the most frequent casualty of a health claim. This is significant since there is often a close association between natural products and healthiness.
The researchers reported that perceived tastiness came down, too. Although a perceived loss of hedonistic pleasure can be a major barrier to health claim acceptance, the taste question was seen to contribute less to the overall attractiveness of a product than changes in healthiness.
What is more, consumers seemed to be wary of novelty in foods. When a product has been enriched, for consumers it is important how it has been enriched. The researchers said this may explain the difference in perception of omega-3 products and bioactive peptides, as the former is seen to come from a natural source, fish.
There was also a difference in perceived naturalness depending on familiarity with the active ingredient and the carrier product. Interestingly, yoghurt with omega-3 had a high rating for naturalness but omega-3 pork chops scored very low.
The team concluded: “The phrasing of the claim and the promised outcome in the claim may not be the most central for consumer perception of the product, whereas established connections between the benefit and ingredient in consumers’ minds are highly important”.
Food Policy (2010 online ahead of print)
“Impact of health related claims on the perception of other product attributes”
Liisa Lähteenmäki, Piritta Lampila, Klaus Grunert, Yasemin Boztug, Øydis Ueland, Annika Åström and Emilia Martinsdóttir