sumer effects of package claims, it is important to consider not just claim-specific outcomes, but also how claims might affect broader judgments about a product.
In a randomized experiment, Kozup et al. (2003) (Study 1) examined consumer reactions to adding heart-healthy claims to packages of frozen lasagna dinner. Participants were 147 primary food shoppers who completed the study protocol online. Findings showed that those exposed to packages containing the claim reported significantly more favorable nutrition attitudes about the product than those who saw the same package without the label. These attitudes included judging the product to be “nutritious,” “good for your heart,” and “part of a healthy diet.”
Labiner-Wolfe et al. (2010) examined consumer reactions to simulated bread or frozen dinner packages that varied in the presence or absence of nutrition-related claims (“low-carb”) and showing or not showing the Nutrition Facts panel (NFP). Participants in the experiment (n = 4,320) were part of a national online consumer panel. Among participants who saw packages that did not show the NFP, those exposed to packages with “low-carb” claims rated the products as more helpful for weight management and lower in calories than those seeing the identical product with no “low-carb” claim (Labiner-Wolfe et al., 2010). However, when the NFP was present, consumers rated products with and without a “low-carb” claim the same in terms of weight management benefits and calories. This apparent benefit of NFP exposure may have less practical value, though, as the majority of Americans—and an even higher proportion of individuals—do not use the NFP (Guthrie et al., 1995; Morton and Guthrie, 1997; Satia et al., 2005; Blitstein and Evans, 2006; Todd and Variyam, 2008) and thus might be more influenced by claims.
In a study of 320 adults from an online consumer panel, Drewnowski et al. (2010) used conjoint analysis to evaluate reactions to 48 nutrient content and product claims. Claims addressed six nutrients to encourage (protein, vitamin C, vitamin A, fiber, calcium, iron) and five nutrients to avoid (fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, sodium), and either stated the presence or absence of the nutrient (e.g., “contains calcium” vs. “is rich in calcium”) or the amount of the nutrient (e.g., “good source of vitamin C” vs. “excellent source of vitamin C”). After exposure to each different claim (or group of claims) about a hypothetical product, consumers rated the healthfulness of the product from 1 (least healthy) to 9 (most healthy). Perceptions of healthfulness (ratings of 7-9) were influenced most by claims about the presence of protein and fiber, followed by claims about the absence of saturated fat and sodium, then by claims about the presence of vitamin C and calcium. Claims about nutrients to encourage were more influential on ratings of healthfulness among women than men. The investigators noted the healthfulness ratings were strongly influenced by claims about protein, a nutrient for which there is no shortfall in the American diet, while claims about low or no sugar did little to enhance healthfulness ratings.
Gorton et al. (2010) conducted intercept interviews with 1,525 food shoppers in 25 grocery stores in New Zealand to assess consumer understanding of two package claims—“97 percent fat free” and “no sugar added”—on simulated food packages. Although a large majority of shoppers (72 percent) interpreted these claims correctly, many shoppers also inferred from the claims that the product was healthy. Nearly half of all shoppers (47 percent) said that a food carrying a “97 percent fat free” claim on the package was “definitely a healthy food.” This inference was significantly more likely among shoppers from racial or ethnic minority groups and among low-income shoppers. The same pattern was found for “no sugar added” claims. U.S. studies of responses to nutrition-related claims in food advertising have also found that consumers tend to over-generalize a product’s healthfulness based on narrower claims (Andrews et al., 1998).
In European studies, food products whose packages contain health-related product claims are preferred by consumers over products without such claims (e.g., chosen from a set of options with and without nutrition claims), are viewed as more attractive and elicit greater purchase intentions (e.g., Verbeke et al., 2009; Aschemann-Witzel and Hamm, 2010). The likelihood of choosing a product with a package claim is reduced when consumers have an established habit or history of buying a certain product (Aschemann-Witzel and Hamm, 2010), suggesting that in such instances, the effects of branding and brand loyalty may trump those of nutrition-related claims. Collectively, these findings suggest that (1) nutrition-related claims can influence consumers’ perceptions of a product; (2) these perceptions sometimes exceed the bounds of the claim, extending to generalized beliefs about the healthfulness of the product; and (3) these over-generalizations may be more common among certain subgroups of consumers, including minorities and those with lower income.
The findings of Labiner-Wolfe et al. (2010) suggest that when consumers see not only a label claim, but also a standardized and comprehensive nutrition statement (i.e., the NFP), over-generalizations of a product’s healthful-