However, these proven general health claims – such as ‘low fat’ – remain a voluntary addition to the front of food products in the EU, while detailed food panel information (such as calorie counts, serving size and nutrient contents) has been mandatory since 2011.
The study could be a driver for more companies to include science-backed health claims on their labels alongside nutrition fact panels, to appeal to a broader spectrum of people.
The researchers – led by Alessia Cavaliere, of the Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy – said the findings may also be helpful in the design of food policy strategies which could appeal to diverse consumer categories.
“The main results overall stress the idea that different degrees of health-orientation are, indeed, reflected in a diverse use of labelled information,” they said, noting: “The effectiveness of food labelling is strongly dependent on whether consumers are actually willing to use it.”
“Policy interventions should not be only focused on improving labelling design or contents, but should also aim at making consumers more orientated to health and more knowledgeable about nutritional characteristics of food,” the team added, explaining healthy eating campaigns could help.
The researchers took data from 300 face-to-face interviews with Italian consumers in charge of their household’s shopping. The respondents were indexed by their level of health consciousness.
The data showed that those with little care over their health and scarce nutrition knowledge tended to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and that these shoppers were disinterested in detailed nutrition information such as fact panels.
Those who were more health conscious tended to be in higher socioeconomic categories and – as previous research suggests – carefully read nutrition fact panel information to make healthy choices.
“The detailed information reported on the nutrition facts panel is more likely used by consumers that already tend to engage in health-enhancing behaviours such as practicing physical activity,” the researchers said.
“Whereas, claims are of interest for a weaker category of the population made of consumers little orientated to health, with scarce nutrition knowledge and low socioeconomic status.”
The team suggested the reason is that nutrition facts panels takes more time and effort to read, which is unappealing to those with little orientation to health.
Front-of-pack health claims, on the other hand, are concise and easy to find, meaning they portray messages even to those with little interest in healthy eating.
Potential to mislead
The researchers warned that health claims may mislead consumers – particularly the ones most partial to front-of-pack information – into believing they are eating a healthy diet by default.
Previous studies into the effects of health claims on consumers’ eating patterns have suggested assertions such as ‘low fat’ can, for instance, provoke people to eat more.
The results in this study also support this, the team said, noting they show eating foods with health claims are often perceived as having a healthy diet.
“Results show that high interest in nutrition and health claims is associated to consumers positive evaluation of the degree of healthiness of their diet,” they said.
“Therefore, this finding seem to strengthen the idea that the information conveyed by claims might be misled by consumers. This assumes particular importance considering that those consumers that are mostly interested in claims seem to have only scarce nutrition knowledge.”
Source: Food Quality and Preference
Released online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2016.07.008
“Does consumer health-orientation affect the use of nutrition facts panel and claims? An empirical analysis in Italy”
Authors: Alessia Cavaliere, Elisa De Marchi and Alessandro Banterle