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The role of nutritional labels in the fight against obesity

The EU-funded OBESCLAIM project investigated whether the health-related claims found on food packaging influence a consumer to choose healthier options.

Health

The increase in obesity has resulted in it becoming one of the most common causes of death in both developed and developing countries. One way to push dietary habits towards healthier food choices, while also satisfying the need for convenience, is to purchase processed foods with certain nutrition (e.g. fat-free) and health information (e.g. lower cholesterol) on the product’s packaging. To facilitate this, the EU has introduced various regulations on presenting nutritional and health information on the front of pre-packaged food products. In response to these regulations, the agro-food industry is increasing its efforts to generate healthier products with reduced saturated fats, sugars and salt. The retail sector is also amplifying the presence of processed products with nutritional and health claims in local markets. Yet even with these efforts, the question remains: do health-related claims on product packaging lead consumers to choose healthier foods? The EU-funded OBESCLAIM (Fighting against obesity in Europe: The role of health related-claim labels in food products) project decided to find out. Understanding purchasing decisions Undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme, the project investigated four specific topics: the prevalence of health-related claim labels in the Spanish food market; consumer understanding, use and perception of health-related claim labels; how these labels lead consumers to choose healthier foods and thus serve as a tool for reducing obesity; and the role economic, social, psychological and emotional factors play in determining consumer preferences. From this investigation, researchers Azucena Gracia and Tiziana de Magistris demonstrated that nutritional claims could be a valid tool in the fight against obesity. “We discovered that the decision-making process for buying food with health-related claims is influenced primarily by personal factors and not economic and social-demographic ones,” says de Magistris. “In other words, psychological factors could trigger people to buy healthy products.” The researchers also found that purchasing decisions can depend on cognitive abilities like emotional intelligence, which allow people to manage their emotions better and make correct choices. At the same time, body image and emotional eating styles also play an important role. For example, the results indicate that consumers value light products (toasted bread, cheese, potato crisps) positively, and tend to avoid buying products with low salt content. Moreover, obese people who are satisfied with their body image are more willing to pay for food products with nutritional claims (lower salt and fat content) than obese people who are dissatisfied with their body image. Further investigation needed According to Gracia, the OBESCLAIM project has advanced our understanding of the effect that psychological factors have on consumer decision-making when purchasing products with health-related claims. “These personal factors should be taken into consideration, either by enterprises or by policymakers, when designing their marketing and policy strategies,” she says. Although these results could already contribute to the prevention of diet-related diseases and improve the well-being of society, more investigation is needed. “A multidisciplinary approach, combining different areas such as food science, neuroscience, economics and psychology and using virtual reality or biometric data, for example, may be useful in the future, keeping in mind that these activities should remain focused on the active engagement of consumers,” adds de Magistris.

Keywords

OBESCLAIM, obesity, health claims, nutritional claims, nutrition labels, food packaging

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