New digital platform may improve consumers’ understanding of health claims made on food packaging

The Health Claims Unpacked project, funded by European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Food has launched a new version of its digital platform to improve consumer understanding of health claims made on food packaging.

The ultimate objective of the project is to create resources to help policy makers, food manufacturers, retailers and marketers communicate more effectively about the health benefits of food, enabling consumers to make more informed choices.

The Health Claims Unpacked project is being led by Professor Rodney Jones, Professor of Sociolinguistics, University of Reading and supported by partners across Europe including the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) and the Technical University of Munich..

In 2019 the first version of the Health Claims Unpacked digital platform was launched to engage consumers in the UK in a series of educational activities that determine how people from different backgrounds understand health claims, and how these claims influence their willingness to purchase particular products.

Using the initial findings from the platform, as well as the results of an online survey of consumers, the project team has added a new activity and improved the user experience. It will also release versions of the platform in German, French and Polish to find out how consumers in different European countries understand health claims.

The new activity, 'What would you buy?', will help the project team better understand consumer purchasing behaviour and the effect that the wording of health claims might have on the amount people are willing to spend.

In the activity, users are told that they are looking for a particular health benefit, for example cholesterol-lowering, and are presented with products at various price points and have differently worded health claims. The consumer has to then choose which one they would like to buy to achieve the desired health benefit.

Another activity, 'Same or Different', has also been updated to reflect the findings from initial data and will now gather critical data on how consumers' perceptions of how the meaning of a claim can be altered by very specific changes to the wording of health claims on food packaging.

Based on data collected using the first version of the digital platform, the project team has developed a range of preliminary recommendations for manufacturers to help them make their products' health claims more appealing, understandable and credible for consumers.

Recommendations currently being considered cover things like 'explaining the use of the word 'normal' to consumers'; research findings show that this term is very unpopular among consumers, who prefer to see claims that will benefit their health rather than keep it 'normal'.

However, the European Commission and most local authorities require the inclusion of this word, therefore one solution might be to combine the word 'normal' with other preferred terms, such as 'normal healthy bones'.

The team advises using verbs rather than noun phrases where possible, for example 'Calcium is needed to maintain healthy bones' instead of 'Calcium is needed for the maintenance of healthy bones', as this makes it clearer to consumers what the nutrient is doing.

Other considerations include: the use of relevant icons relating to the benefit of a nutrient, and remembering the audience when wording health claims, as research suggests that people from different age groups respond to health claims differently.

For example, older people have more health 'concerns', whereas younger age groups have more health 'goals', therefore different age groups are likely to pay attention to different kinds of health benefits.

The Health Claims Unpacked team is using the insight it is gaining from the platform to design a special hub that manufacturers can use to directly access information about consumer preferences for different wording and improve the health claims they use on their products. A prototype of this hub will be available by the end of the year.

Prof Rodney Jones says: "Already we have been able to use initial findings from the research to gain a better understanding of what consumers look for when it comes to health claims on food packages, allowing us to begin formulating best practice guidelines for manufacturers and retailers. By the end of this project, we hope to have developed an insightful, data-driven resource that will enable the food industry to communicate health claims more effectively, for the benefit of both the brands and their consumers."

In Europe, the scientific basis of health claims is rigorously assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and then, if approved, claims are added to a register of those that can be used on foods and drinks. Manufacturers can make some changes to the approved wording of a claim, as long as they don't alter the meaning. However, it's challenging for manufacturers to know what changes can help consumer understand the claims better while still delivering the intended health message.

Dr Stacey Lockyer, Senior Nutrition Scientist, BNF comments:

Health claims on food packaging provide important information about how foods or drinks may affect our health. Therefore it is critical that these are presented in a way that enables us to make fully informed choices. Although there is a rigorous scientific assessment of the health claims made on our food, what the claim means may not always be clear to consumers because of the wording.

Through the research findings of this project, we hope to find ways of helping food manufacturers to make claims on foods easier to understand, helping people to choose appropriate foods for themselves as part of a healthy diet."

The EIT Food-funded Health Claims Unpacked project will run until the end of the year and the team is encouraging as many people as possible to get involved in the research to enhance the data available. The activities take around 15 minutes to complete.

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