A new study provides insight into how consumers interpret health-related claims
Regulations around health and nutrition messages are designed to help consumers make healthier food choices and stop them from being misled. However, a new study from Europe suggests consumers might not understand claims in the way regulators intend.
The main findings were:
- Consumers don’t necessarily distinguish between a nutrition claim and a health claim.
- An individual’s understanding of nutrition and health claims is mainly influenced by their familiarity with the nutrient or ingredient mentioned in the claim (e.g. omega 3s, prebiotics).
- Messages that are short and simple are viewed more favourably. Giving additional detail does not improve their understanding.
- Unsurprisingly, claims will resonate and be viewed more favourably if they are personally relevant to the consumer.
As different types of claims require different levels of scientific evidence and investment, these findings highlight the need for food marketers to think carefully about what claims they use to promote their products and brands.
In New Zealand and Australia, regulations group nutrition and health claims into three categories – nutrition content claims; general level health claims and high-level health claims. A similar approach is used in other countries but the categories might be different.
Nutrient content claims
Nutrition content claims, such as “source of protein” are succinct, simple to understand and relatively inexpensive to obtain. To make a nutrition content claim about protein, for example, a business just has to show that its product on average, contains 5g of protein in one serve. Depending upon the product and the nutrient involved, this could cost as little as a few hundred dollars.
General level health claims
To make a general level health claim, like “calcium for strong bones”, the situation is similar, with the product having to contain a specified amount of calcium in one serve and on top of that, meet a “healthiness” threshold called a Nutrient Profile Score. This prevents health claims being made on foods with high amounts of added sugar, saturated fat, and salt. There are more than 200 pre-approved claims relating to various food components to choose from. As with a nutrition content claim, making a general level health claim from the pre-approved list requires relatively little investment, with validation most likely based on lab analyses.
If, however, a business believes there is a strong body of scientific evidence to support a general level health claim that isn’t on the pre-approved list (and there often is), they can compile this evidence through a systematic review, notify Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) and start using the claim. Furthermore, businesses can contribute to this evidence using data from clinical trials that have been carried out on their own product or formulations. The dossier of evidence is retained by the company and becomes their Intellectual Property. Investment in clinical trials is by no means cheap – we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars at least, but it can give businesses a competitive advantage if they are able to relate the clinical evidence directly to their product or brand. This was the approach taken by Zespri when they became the first to make a self-substantiated health claim about Zespri kiwifruit and normal bowel function.
There are other benefits for businesses investing in health and nutrition research which are often overlooked. Clinical evidence, providing the studies are well-designed and the findings are robust, gives that business credibility among experts and builds relationships with these groups – the researchers, health professionals, regulators, and policymakers. These groups want to know the science behind a claim, and will quickly see past shoddy science and marketing.
High-level health claims
The main difference between a general level health claim and a high-level health claim is that the health effect relates to a serious disease, or biomarker of a serious disease, such as heart disease or osteoporosis. Although based on the findings of the recent study, it is debatable whether or not the consumer would ever register the difference. The same “healthiness” conditions apply and sometimes the food component being claimed needs to be present in a higher concentration. High-level health claims are also restricted to those on the pre-approved list, and it’s not possible for businesses to substantiate their own claims. The claims on this list are available to any product that meets the specified criteria, and so provides little opportunity for competitive advantage.
Key take outs:
- In deciding what claims to make – avoid the scatter-gun approach to nutrition claims. Instead, be focused on the specific needs of your consumer rather than attempting to cover all bases. Know what unmet consumer need you are addressing.
- If you are marketing an unfamiliar ingredient, time needs to be spent educating the consumer and those they seek advice from. Don’t forget to engage experts who have a presence in the media.
- Keep messages short and succinct. If consumers understand the nutrient or ingredient behind the claim, lengthy messages won’t be necessary. This can be a challenge with health claims, as the context to the claim is often required so consumers aren’t misled. For instance, “Good source of calcium. Calcium reduces the risk osteoporosis in those over 65 years when consumed in a diet that’s high in calcium and contains adequate amounts of vitamin D”.
Hodgkins, C., Egan, B., Peacock, M., et al. (2019). Understanding How Consumers Categorise Health Related Claims on Foods: A Consumer-Derived Typology of Health-Related Claims. Nutrients; 11(3):539