The study, published in Journal of Functional Foods, found that an informed food choice regarding nutrition content from ‘health claim’ labels is only one aspect of several when consumers choose foods; noting that taste and price are still commonly identified as the most influential factors.
The authors, led by Fiona Lalor from University College Dublin, Ireland, also found that consumer food choices are heavily influenced by the trustworthiness of any related health claim.
“About half of the participants declared that they would trust big food companies to give them accurate information about their products and about one third said that they trusted family/friends as a source of information on the topic,” said Lalor and her colleagues.
They added that consumers also “had a sense of comfort” with products they are familiar with, which leads to lack of change towards new products on the market.
“Given that many products that make health claims are relatively new to the market place, this suggests that consumers may be slow to try them also,” said the authors.
Lalor and her co-workers explained that consumers are becoming “increasingly concerned with the foods they eat and the impact they have on their health.”
To address this, the food industry has developed an extensive selection of foods that make ‘health claims’: to reduce disease risk, or to improve/maintain health, for example.
Such ‘functional foods’ are designed to be consumed as part of a regular diet, “but have a health benefit with a clear, nutritional basis,” said the authors.
They added that whilst there can be “professional scepticism” about the role of these products on the market place; “it is clear that the consumer is showing increasing interest in the purchase of products which could provide solutions to dietary problems or go some way towards preventing problems before they arise.”
The researchers oversaw a series of five focus groups, involving 35 female consumers, finding that taste, price and packaging were most frequently cited as ‘reasons to purchase’.
They added that many were more inclined to buy a product if there ‘was an offer on’ and the product was reduced in price, whilst “participants were not prepared to purchase foodstuffs if they did not ‘taste good’, irrespective of health or any other issue.”
Lalor and co-workers found that health claims do influence purchasing habits in older populations (over 55 years old), and reported that people are more positive towards health claims when a friend or relative suffers from a related condition.
“Participants seemed more inclined to have a positive attitude if they were attempting to reverse a health issue, i.e., reduce cholesterol …but if the claim was non-specific e.g. improves your immunity, they were less inclined to believe it,” explained the authors.
As part of the discussions, participants were also asked whom they most trusted as sources of information and advice on foodstuffs that made health claims.
The researchers found that for some participants’ familiarity with a long-standing brand “encouraged them to trust the product”, whereas for others a branded product produced by a multinational and available all over the world was less trustworthy and “more likely to be motivated solely by profit”.
“For these, more sceptical participants, there was a feeling that manufacturers were just using the claims as a ‘marketing gimmick’ and had limited scientific support,” explained Lalor and her colleagues.
However, they noted that for those who trusted multinationals, a clear reason for the trust was that larger companies are in a financial position to conduct research “and therefore their claims were more credible.”
Source: Journal of Functional Foods
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.jff.2011.02.001
“Health claims on foodstuffs: A focus group study of consumer attitudes”
Authors: F. Lalor, C. Madden, K. McKenzie, P.G. Wall