August 2, 2007
Health claims, nutrient-content claims, structure/function claims—manufacturers use them to help give their products an edge on grocery-store shelves, but are consumers getting the message? Not entirely, according to preliminary findings from FDA’s Experimental Study of Health Claims on Food Packages.
“Not all claims were interpreted the same way, so not all claims lead to the same consumer perception,” says Jordan Lin, Ph.D., consumer science specialist, FDA. “Consumers get different messages about the same product, depending on whether there is a food-specific health claim, substance- specific health claim, nutrient- content claim, structure/ function claim or dietary guidance statement. What we found was a lot of the variation depends on what they already know about the nutrient and the diet-disease relationship.”
The study did reveal, however, that respondents would be more likely to purchase a product with a health claim than without, and are even more likely to buy an item with a substance-specific health claim—for example, “Potassiumrich foods, such as orange juice, may reduce the risk of high blood pressure”—over the same product with other health claims or messages.
“The goal of the study was to understand what consumers take away from claims or health messages,” Lin says.
Synovate, Inc., Chicago, the study’s data collector, drew a sample of 9,000 adult members from its Global Opinion Panels database that matched the distribution of U.S. heads of households in gender, education, age, and ethnicity and/or race. Specifically, the majority of respondents were white, female and over the age of 55. In Phase 1 of the study, 1,593 people responded to questions about their awareness of foods, nutrients and the possible health benefits of foods. Of these Phase 1 respondents, 1,077 participated in Phase 2, which gauged perceptions of various label examples for yogurt, orange juice and pasta.
Among these foods, orange juice (58%) was perceived as the most healthful, followed by yogurt (44%) and pasta (11%). Of nutrients or food components respondents had heard of, calcium (100%), potassium (99%) and trans fat or trans fatty acids (95%) scored highest. Eight percent recognized the fictitious nutrient “lysoton.”
These findings likely won’t affect any of the current dozen or so FDA-approved health claims, according to Lin, but will be taken into consideration for future policy initiatives.
“The findings are not earthshaking at all,” Lin says. “They somewhat confirm what other research has already shown us. It’s just that this is one of the few publicly known studies that compares claims in a quantitative and systematic way.
“We’re gong to try to write a more complete report in a year or so,” Lin continues. “And there will be more studies as part of our effort to increase our understanding about what consumers know and understand about food labels.”
For the full report, see www.cfsan.fda.gov/~comm/crnutri4.html.
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