Are health claims a turn-off for consumers? 'Many manufacturers don't use health claims because they are not effective'

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

The language used in health claims confuses consumers, research finds / Pic: GettyImages-sergeyryzhov
The language used in health claims confuses consumers, research finds / Pic: GettyImages-sergeyryzhov

Related tags: Health claims

The wording of approved EU health claims is prescriptive and precise. The intention of the regulation is to protect consumers from unfounded or overblown statements. But it is also to inform. Are health claims doing their job?

If a business wants to make a health claim about its food product in Europe, it must abide by the EU nutrition and health claims legislation. The rules of the apply to nutrition claims (such as "low fat" or "high fibre") and health claims (such as "Vitamin D is needed for the normal growth and development of bone in children").

public EU Register of Nutrition and Health Claims​ lists all permitted nutrition claims and all authorised and non-authorised health claims. According to the European Commission, this provides a reference point to ensure ‘full transparency for consumers’.

“The objective of those rules is to ensure that any claim made on a food's labelling, presentation or advertising in the European Union is clear, accurate and based on scientific evidence. Food bearing claims that could mislead consumers are prohibited on the EU market,”​ the EC said. 

The health claims register is applicable to all communications, including labelling and marketing, Stacey Lockyer, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, observed.  

“It is recommended that food businesses should stick closely to the authorised wording,”​ she told a digital event to discuss health claims and how they resonate with shoppers.

Lockyer said there is ‘some flexibility’, as long as any changes don’t alter the meaning of the claim.

So, what’s the problem?

In practice, patchy national monitoring and enforcement of health claims – as well as varying interpretations of the regulation - frequently deter food brands from making any changes to the standard script, the event heard. 

Professor Rodney Jones of the University of Reading has been working on an EIT-Food funded project, Health Claims Unpacked. According to him, that could mean the health claims regulation is failing to meet all its stated objectives.

Health claims often not understood

Ensuring health claims are transparent and informative means that consumers need to understand them and companies need to use them. But the health claims have been written ‘for scientists, by scientists’, Professor Jones explained.

“Wording is very important when it comes to how we communicate the benefits of food to consumers,”​ he told attendees. “Health claims from the EFSA Register tend to be written in very dense scientific language. These statements are not easy to understand for most laypeople.”

In fact, he continued, research conducted by the Health Claims Unpacked team found that the formal wording may even ‘deter’ people from buying a product.

Health Claims Unpacked conducted consumer research in countries including the UK, France, Germany, Poland and Hungary. When people had their attention drawn to on-pack health claims in focus groups, there was ‘a universal negative reaction’. This reflected a ‘potent combination’ of a ‘lack of understanding’ and a ‘lack of trust’, Professor Jones revealed.

“There was a feeling that they were manipulative marketing tricks. Most consumers had no idea health claims were regulated. They thought manufacturers used [complex scientific language] to deliberately confuse.”

It would appear that many food brands are all too aware of this problem, noting that health claims ‘don’t speak to consumers’. This situation puts businesses who want to communicate health attributes of a product ‘in a bind’.

“If they use the authorised wording from EFSA they thought consumers wouldn’t understand… that it might backfire. They are also reluctant to change the wording,”​ the linguistics expert reflected.

"Many manufacturers will end up not using health claims because they are not effective. What you get is consumers having less information about the health benefits of food."

What shoppers want

Why don’t health claims resonate? The complex structure of sentences is one obvious flaw in approved wording. “One of the things that makes it so difficult to process is not just the words but the grammar... Consumers prefer more everyday words in place of the formal language and complex noun phrases used in EFSA's claims."

Manufacturers could potentially look to simplify this in order to make health claims more consumer-friendly without changing the meaning of the claim. “Consumers were willing to pay slightly more for products with shorter health claims written in simpler language,”​ the Health Claims Unpacked researchers found.

Another area that manufacturers could exercise some flexibility on is making claims speak directly to shoppers. Authorised wording is ‘impersonal’ but Health Claims Unpacked found shoppers respond positively to the use of ‘you’. Consumers reported that this direct approach did not change the meaning of the claim being made. 

Meaning being lost in translation is another issue the project examined – with a particular deep-dive into the use of ‘normal’ which is translated into ‘healthy’ in Polish. “That doesn’t just create an uneven playing field, it highlights the problem of translation,”​ Professor Jones noted.

Consumers in all geographies, it was found, expressed a preference for the world ‘healthy’ over the word ‘normal’. Importantly in the context of the health claims regulation, they also reported that the use of one over the other did not change the meaning of the claim.

All of this is important, Professor Jones contended, because the fundamental purpose of the health claims regulation is to communicate clearly to consumers, helping them make healthier choices.

“One thing that has been missing is the voice of consumers and an understanding of what wording consumers would like to see.”

Later this month, Health Claims Unpacked will be launching a digital resource for manufacturers that will provide insight into what consumers do – and don’t – want to hear when it comes to health claims. What the researchers can’t tell you is whether these changes will be considered acceptable by the authorities interpreting and implementing the health claims regulation.

If the language that consumers would prefer to see does indeed change the meaning, that would not be permissible under the health claim rules. "Perceptions and preference must be considered alongside similarity of meaning," ​Professor Jones noted. 

However, he reiterated that some changes could potentially be made to the wording of health claims to increase their appeal without shifting the meaning. He advises 'simplifying the grammar' and personalising the message. "This is a safe change and has implications on willingness to purchase". 

Switching 'normal' to 'healthy' would similarly boost consumer approval of a health claim. However, Professor Jones noted, 'this is controversial and there is an ongoing debate' over whether such a change would impact meaning. 

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