Health foods seen as unnatural

The food producers are doing everything they can to tell consumers about the health benefits of their products. But do they really know how the consumers perceive their information? Øydis Ueland does.

The consumer researcher at Matforsk has a central role in a Nordic research project which is surveying how consumers perceive health claims made about food. The have interviewed consumers in all the Nordic countries. "Mainly, we are talking about two groups. One group wants to have a short message and another group wants to know everything," concludes consumer researcher Øydis Ueland.

Healthy = natural
Consumers who are given information about the health effects of a food perceive it as being less natural – and thereby less healthy – than products without such health claims. And products with health claims also have a slightly lower score for taste. "When it comes to being healthy, being natural is seen as very important. Products with something added are seen as being less healthy," says Øydis Ueland. It depends a little on what kind of product we are talking about, but this means that a product with a health claim may be perceived as less healthy than exactly the same product without any health claims on the packaging!

Omega 3 has status
The survey shows that a claim with a known ingredient is preferred to a claim about a product with an unknown ingredient. A good example of this is Omega 3. This is well known and products with Omega 3 are seen as healthy, almost regardless of what they are. "On the other hand, not many people know what bioactive peptides are, so the perception is of a product the maker has ‘tampered with’", says Øydis Ueland. So one has to be very careful about what one adds to food and how this is communicated.

Can help = helps
"We have tested whether the formulation of a health claim has any effect on how trustworthy the consumer perceives it to be – and we can see that consumers take very little notice of it," says Øydis Ueland. It makes little difference whether it says ‘reduces the risk of…’ or ‘is good for the heart’. Neither does it make any difference to the consumer whether it says ‘can help against’ or ‘helps against’ on the packaging. For claims concerning serious illnesses, such as cardiovascular diseases, it may appear that claims that the risk is reduced have a somewhat higher credibility. Such claims are however not allowed to be used on food.

About health claims
The issue of health claims has proved to be rather a hot potato for the Norwegian food industry over the last 10 years. A number of producers have wanted to market the health benefits of their foods, using health claims. Norway is now in the process of introducing the new EU regulation covering this area. This regulation permits the use of health claims which have been approved by the European Commission. The deadline for sending in health claims for this list expired on 31st January this year.

Trust the state
Public bodies and independent organisations have a great deal of credibility when it comes to labelling food. "We trust the authorities most: we don’t trust the media at all, nor the industry either," says Øydis Ueland. Take the keyhole label as an example. For this to be trusted, it must come from the authorities. Confusion can arise from the keyhole currently being associated with ICA. "It will take a huge amount of information to correct that impression," says Øydis Ueland.

Just want to know and must know everything
The researchers have discovered that consumers divide into two groups in regard to how much information they want. Those who think it’s enough to know what the product helps for and those who want to know more about what the active ingredient is, what this active ingredient is good for, how it works in the body and so on. In Norway these two groups are approximately the same size. Women are slightly more concerned about the information than men, but in fact both groups are most concerned about price. "Taste and price mean most," says Ueland and adds that consumers are often sceptical about ‘light’ products tasting as good as regular products.

When something is sold out…
In the purchasing situation we don’t take much time over each individual product. This means that we just look at the product label and think ‘I know that one’. Extra product information, in the form of health claims for example, only becomes relevant when the item you had intended to buy is sold out. "Then a health claim might be just that little bit extra that makes a consumer choose one product over another. Then the information becomes decisive," says Ueland.

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