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As consumers become increasingly concerned with health and wellness, the opportunity and trend for brands to centre food and beverage products around health and nutritional claims is growing. Yet despite the peak in demand for health-boosting products, consumer scepticism about the credibility and reliability of health claims is on the rise, as research from FMCG Gurus shows, 40% of consumers believe the claims made by brands to be misleading.
Seeking to simplify and enhance scientific health claim communication, Rodney Jones, professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Reading, is leading an EIT Food-funded research project that is producing a digital toolkit to help manufacturers to better communicate, and consumers to better understand health claims.
Bringing together the latest research in linguistics, information design, nutritional science and behavioural economics, researchers at Health Claims Unpacked developed a suite of activities and games that consumers play, generating a wealth of information on how they interact with health claims on products depending on the wording, font, colour and other visual elements.
By collecting and analysing this data, the researchers are aiming to build a more comprehensive understanding of average consumers’ interpretations and preferences regarding health claims.
Health claim regulation in Europe is often criticised for its complexity and ambiguity. According to Jones, the wording of health claims
under EFSA is often highly scientific and difficult for consumers to understand.
Although regulation allows for F&B manufacturers to alter the wording of claims provided that the meaning remains the same, no guidance is provided around how to do so, which raises challenges for manufacturers.
Despite being effective at preventing brands from making unsubstantiated health claims, these rules also limit many companies from
producing food products with valid claims, due to fear of unintentionally breaching regulation.
Another issue is the lack of uniformity in the application of European regulation across member states, and discrepancies emerging from different language and translations. This unequal playing field is particularly problematic for manufacturers who market across Europe, Jones notes.
Health Claims Unpacked, which is currently available in English, German, French and Polish and soon to be launched in Romanian and Hungarian, has yielded some interesting results for food makers.
The research found that minor changes, such as simplifying the grammar of health claims, can have large effects in making claims more understandable and reliable for consumers. Using personalisation, avoiding the use of asterisks and replacing complex turns of phrase such as ‘contributes to the maintenance of’ with ‘helps maintain’, are just some of the tactics brands can employ to improve their communication of health claims.
Armed with these findings, Health Claims Unpacked hopes to contribute to improving health claim regulation by lobbying regulators to provide better guidelines to F&B manufacturers, while at the same time identifying strategies for brands to make EFSA-approved health claims more engaging and digestible for consumers.