Health claims that manufacturers make on food packaging might not match a product’s nutritional benefits, but people still make buying decisions based on these claims, researchers reveal.

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Do the claims on cereal boxes sway us?

The nutritional facts and ingredients that appear on a product’s packaging aim to reveal what consumers want to know about a food.

A consumer might choose to look at a product’s calorie, fat, protein, carbohydrate, vitamin, or mineral content.

Those factors, as well as the potential presence of allergens and other ingredients, all work together to reveal a product’s content.

However, many manufacturers print claims that can steer consumers in one direction or the other.

People often make buying decisions based on these perceptions and, interestingly, such claims do not always correspond with a product’s actual nutritional status.

This fact led to four studies, which the researchers combined into a single paper and published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. They examined the claims printed on the front of food packaging and assessed the differences between these claims and the products’ nutritional content.

They also looked into how consumers reacted to these claims when it was time to make a buying decision. The wanted to determine whether the claims were accurate and whether they affected purchasing choices, regardless of their accuracy.

The authors hailed from institutions including INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France, the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.

Food claims that appear on packaging usually follow science- or nature-based arguments, such as “improved” or “preserved.”

They tend to highlight either the positive attributes of the food or the absence of negative ones.

For example, they may add positives by claiming that a food is “high in calcium” or “high-protein,” or removing negatives by claiming that it is “gluten-free” or “low-cholesterol.”

Other ways to promote a product’s benefits include not adding negatives, such as “no artificial flavor” or “GMO-free,” or not removing positives, such as “all natural” or “pure.”

The researchers tested front-of-package (FOP) claims that appeared on different breakfast cereals and milk products. One study, for example, tested 633 different breakfast cereals, of which 460 had a health or nutrition claim on the front of the package.

They conducted these studies using survey questions paired with attention checks to determine how each would evaluate different FOP claims. They examined how the various claims affected consumer behavior.

We found that consumers had a more positive attitude toward claims that are based on the presence of something good, compared to claims that are about the absence of something bad.”

Study co-author Prof. Pierre Chandon, INSEAD

In other words, people felt that when positive components were present, these items were more healthful than those whose claims removed perceived negatives.

Also, people felt that the type of claim would help predict the product’s healthfulness, taste, or dieting properties, even though none of the claims explicitly said that they would make them healthier or aid weight loss.

There was also not much of a connection, they found, between the positive claims and the nutritional content of the breakfast cereals. In fact, Prof. Chandon notes that the actual correlation was almost zero.

Though this study examined health claims from a marketing standpoint, it is possible to make some health-related conclusions from the findings.

The researchers did find that FOP claims often do not truly reflect a product’s ingredients and how they relate to health or weight loss.

Instead, it is more accurate to examine the nutrition label to get a better idea of how a particular food can help someone lose weight, maintain weight loss, or enjoy a healthier life.