In an effort to determine the reasons behind parents’ food choices, researchers looked at a range of front-of-pack (FoP) marketing attributes on cereal boxes and how they affected choice.
Although there are some FoP guidelines for manufacturers to follow, the researchers from the University of Technology Sydney said that other, voluntary, marketing aspects make it difficult for parents to make the right choice.
“Some unhealthy children’s products are more likely to contain marketing images and text implying health than healthier products, thus making it difficult for consumers to make accurate assessments of a product’s healthfulness”.
Obesity on the rise
The study's motivations stem from the rise in childhood obesity. In addition, instead of eating their 5-a-day, children are over consuming sugar and fat.
There is a parental factor in weight of children, as parents have power over which foods are made available as well as shaping eating behaviours.
Although parents want to feed their children well they often struggle to do so, due to reasons such as children's fussiness and socio-economic position, according to the researchers.
However, it is not just because of parents that children are gaining weight: TV advertising remains the biggest threat to children and their eating choices, alongside food packaging.
Nutrient facts, health claims and ingredients lists are all regulated by governments, however manufacturers have free reign over how they influence both children and parents.
The FoP marketing techniques used to sway parents and children could be product imagery, colours, typography, unregulated claims (e.g. taste) as well as images of fruit or sports people.
This means that packaging could imply healthiness whilst the ingredients list or nutritional information speaks otherwise.
“To effectively promote healthier packaged foods to parents and their children it is necessary to understand not only how parents use FoP nutrition information like the HSR system, but also how these systems affect parents when taken in the context of other, possibly conflicting, FoP marketing attributes,” said researchers Dr Catherine Georgina Russell, Paul F. Burke, Dr David S. Waller and Dr Edward Wei.
Parents were asked to complete surveys assessing their socio-demographic position and their concerns over their child’s weight and eating behaviours.
In total there were 520 completed surveys from parents who were at least 18 years old and were responsible for feeding a child between the ages of five and 11.
The parents were then presented with a range of hypothetical cereal boxes in an indirect measurement approach that replicated marketplaces decisions, known as a discrete choice experiment (DCE).
The FoP aspects measured were product imagery, other imagery, claims and health ratings.
The cereal boxes presented to the parents had either no health star rating, a two star rating, a five star rating or an exaggerated five star rating.
The colour of the cereal in the product imagery also varied from box to box, with one showing artificial coloured flakes (blues, greens and pinks), brown coloured flakes (to mimic chocolate), yellow coloured flakes (to mimic standard cornflakes), or light brown coloured flakes (to mimic all bran).
Other FoP attributes measured were the inclusion of images of cartoon characters, sports players or healthy ingredients, as well as taste claims (“the taste and crunch that children love”), health claims (portraying the exclusion of fat or sugar) or credence claims (“made with organic and biodynamic ingredients”).
Traffic lights, stars and images
Product visuals were found to be the most significant attribute as parents strongly disliked the cereal boxes portraying artificial colours or chocolate flavours.
“Our findings that the picture of the cereal product bowl was most influential in affecting parents' choices, is therefore noteworthy,” concluded the researchers.
Product imagery was as significantly important as health star ratings, with parents likely to choose products with high ratings - 5 stars - compared to low ratings or none shown.
The study, published in Appetite journal, found that simpler health information is better acknowledged than nutritional tables.
Traffic light systems, such as the national French system, or health star ratings, such as the one used in Australia, receive greater attention and are better understood, enabling consumers to make faster, healthier decisions.
Imagery of cartoon characters, sports players or healthy ingredients were found to be the least significant, however the researchers explain that this could be a result of having no children involved in the experiment.
“Consequently, given that this was a study undertaken by parents and children were not present during the testing, with the potential to influence parents, consideration for the child's preferences may have been lower than in real life supermarket contexts,” they said.
Furthermore, the cartoon characters used on the hypothetical cereal boxes were unknown and unlicensed which could also have had effect.
The researchers concluded that more research needs to be done in order to assess the full effect of FoP marketing, as not all parents are affected in the same way.
However, the study shows that there are ways to influence parents into making healthier choices for their children, through the use of FoP marketing.
“Policies directed at improving children's food intakes should take account of the range of influences acting upon parents at the point of purchase, and consider their relative importance rather than in isolation, and how these influences differentially affects parents,” the researchers said.
"The impact of front-of-pack marketing attributes versus nutrition and health information on parents' food choices"
Published online ahead of print: doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2017.05.001
Authors: Catherine Georgina Russell, Paul F. Burke, David S. Waller, and Edward Wei.