Findings from a recent study in the September/October issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior demonstrates that consumers often read nutritional information on foodstuff labels, and don’t clearly understand the true definition of health, weight loss and carbohydrate claims. “Effect of Low-carbohydrate Claims on Consumer Perceptions about Food Products’ Healthfulness and Helpfulness for Weight Management” was authored by Judith Labiner-Wolfe, PhD; Chung-Tung Jordan Lin, PhD; and Linda Verrill, PhD.

In the early 2000s, when Dr. Atkin’s New Diet Revolution and The South Beach Diet were hugely popular, low-carbohydrate claims gained huge popularity, and there was a 516% sales increase in low-carbohydrate food products from 2001-2005 according to AC Nielsen Consumer Insight.

In particular, front of label communication was a key dynamic in this phenomenon. Consumers are less likely to turn to the back of a package to look at the Nutrition Facts panel when there is a claim on the front of the package.

In a new study, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition dug deeper to gain insights into whether or not low-carb claims led consumers to believe products had benefits that may or may not be associated with actual low-carb content. An online rating survey asked 4,320 consumers to list products based on perceived healthfulness, helpfulness for weight management, and caloric content. This was based on claims on the front of packaging only, as one would view products on a grocery store shelf. Questions were also asked about the knowledge consumers had pertaining to nutrition claims vs. non-nutrition claims and Nutritional Fact panels when readily available for specific products being discussed in the survey.

Interesting to note that when Nutrition Facts were not available,

Low-carbohydrate claims led to more favorable perceptions about products’ helpfulness for weight management, healthfulness, and caloric content. Because an individual packaged food product’s usefulness for weight management as part of an overall diet, its healthfulness, and total calorie content are not dependent solely on the amount of total carbohydrate it contains, the study demonstrated that consumers could misattribute benefits to products that claim to be low in carbohydrate.

The researchers did discover however that when panels were available,

participants’ perceptions became more consistent with the nutrition profile of the products…By showing the claims and the NF [nutrition facts] side-by-side, both pieces of information were equally accessible to participants as they answered the study questions. The presence of the NF, however, allowed participants to use this more diagnostic information to judge the product.

However, Dr. Judith Labiner-Wolfe, of the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health, mentions a snag in research that is evaluated solely from an on-screen media touch point used as stimuli.

The online venue for viewing the stimuli and answering the study questions may have fewer distractions than situations in which consumers make real product judgments, such as in a busy grocery store. Therefore, this study may overestimate the effect of the Nutrition Facts panel. Findings from this research are consistent with previous experimental studies that found participants misattribute health benefits to products with claims and that nutrition information has an independent effect on perceptions.

The authors’ state:

although exposure to the Nutrition Facts has the potential for mitigating inappropriate benefits attributed to products claiming to be low carbohydrate, previous consumer research suggests that when a food product carries a front-of-package claim, consumers are less likely to turn the package over to look at the Nutrition Facts panel.

The real point of this study is that education as key. It is a company’s responsibility to ensure consumers better understand the limited meaning of front package claims. From a consumer standpoint it is vital to read the labels, both front and back when selecting foodstuffs.

“Effect of Low-carbohydrate Claims on Consumer Perceptions about Food Products’ Healthfulness and Helpfulness for Weight Management”
Judith Labiner-Wolfe, PhD; Chung-Tung Jordan Lin, PhD; and Linda Verrill, PhD.
Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Volume 42, Issue 5 (September/October 2010) published by Elsevier.

Written by: Sy Kraft, B.A. – Journalism – California State University, Northridge (CSUN)