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The effects of front-of-pack nutrition information and product claims on consumers' product evaluations and choice behaviour : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Marketing at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
Enabling consumers to recognise foods’ nutritional profiles is important because energy overconsumption is a significant contributing factor to a worldwide obesity epidemic. Parents especially need to be able to recognise which foods are healthy options for their children to eat regularly, and which are not, as childhood weight and dietary habits instilled while young have long-term implications for adult health. Policy makers are reluctant to regulate marketing of high fat, sugar and salt foods, but collectively the global food industry has implemented a suite of educational and informational interventions intended to help consumers control their weight. Foremost among these is the introduction of new front-of-pack nutrition labels and support for product claims that link nutrients to health-related outcomes.
The objective of this research was to determine whether detailed numeric or simple graphic front-of-pack nutrition labels influence how parents evaluate and choose between products, and could therefore contribute to public health objectives. Additionally, nutrition label performance in the context of product claims was also assessed.
There were two theoretical bases for this research; the first was the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) of persuasion, which offers a general explanation of consumers’ attitudinal reactions to new information. It states that motivation to engage with and ability to understand information determines how people process messages. The research also incorporated behaviour modification perspective, which stresses the role of external forces in shaping behaviour.
Reflecting these two theoretical perspectives, the research used both cognitive and behavioural experimental methodologies. One formative study, two attitudinal experiments and one choice experiment investigated whether:
• new nutrition label formats enhance consumers’ ability to distinguish between foods with differing nutritional values; and
• different nutrition labels formats moderate the influence of varying levels of product claims on consumers’ attitudes and choices.
The formative research revealed that parents often struggle to balance a raft of goals when grocery shopping. While they may hold good nutrition as an important consideration, practical issues such as time pressure, price, convenience and preferences are more salient concerns that militate against using nutrition information.
The two cognitive studies found that parents’ attitudes towards children’s breakfast cereals with varying nutritional profiles were unaffected by predominantly numeric labelling formats; this result was observed in two experiments, confirming the hypothesis that numeric information is not incorporated in product evaluations. Conversely, a graphical “Traffic Light” label did affect parents’ attitudes towards the two breakfast cereals; attitudes towards a less healthy option were significantly lower. The research also confirmed that the current nutrition information panel does not affect consumers’ product choices, but adding nutrition information to the pack fronts did change choice behaviour. Both front-of-pack labels affected parents’ choices, but the Traffic Light label had a greater impact. That is, parents were less likely to choose a less healthy cereal when presented with a Traffic Light label.
The addition of nutrition-content and health claims did not affect parents’ attitudes, but these pieces of information were used when choosing between competing options. In particular, claims had significant choice utility when only numeric nutrition information was available. However, parents were less likely to be swayed by product claims on a less healthy cereal when the Traffic Light label was presented.
In summary, this research suggests that nutrition labels that display information graphically help consumers evaluate energy-dense products more accurately. Given the aim of nutrition labelling is to help consumers make healthier food choices, simple, graphical formats seem more likely to achieve this objective than highly detailed, numeric formats.