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In need for food intake control; should I get tempted more or less?

Final Report Summary - FOOD TEMPTATIONS (In need for food intake control; should I get tempted more or less?)

In their attempts to combine a healthy lifestyle with the pleasures of indulgences, consumers are increasingly looking for products that offer both a superior taste and health benefits. Following consumer demand for guilt-free pleasures, the food industry has responded by making available healthier alternatives of inherently unhealthy foods. So-called healthy indulgences typically feature front-of package claims such as 'extra antioxidants', 'with calcium', 'low-fat', or 'reduced sugar', thereby suggesting that they represent more wholesome alternatives compared to their regular counterparts. Prior literature has provided some conflicting predictions as to how health claims affect consumption of the indulgences they are attached to.

The most prominent view posits that healthy indulgences stimulate food intake because their consumption is generally expected to be easier to justify. Alternatively, one might argue that in light of an inverse relationship between functional and hedonic attributes potentially making indulgences being perceived as less enjoyable the healthier they are portrayed, healthy indulgences may lead to decreased consumption.

This research suggests that there are profound behavioural implications to how healthy indulgences are framed. Specifically, the authors show that ostensibly similar health claims result in opposite consumption patterns depending on whether the nature of the attributes emphasised is functional or hedonic. Functional food attributes (e.g. 'antioxidants', 'cholesterol', vitamins') are primarily associated with the utilitarian, health-related properties of the food. Hedonic food attributes (e.g. 'fat' or 'sugar'), on the other hand, are naturally associated with the taste and pleasure inducing properties of the food.

Across several experimental studies, the authors provide converging evidence that health claims featuring functional food attributes may lead to decreased consumption of the foods bearing the claims, whereas claims featuring hedonic food attributes may lead to increased consumption relative to a regular packaging featuring no claims.

These findings have broad relevance to the food industry in that they highlight important negative repercussions of the popular strategy of offering healthier alternatives of inherently unhealthy foods, when the attributes the claim stresses are of a functional nature. For example, the findings suggest that managers may be better off not highlighting functional health claims in combination with indulgent foods, while an increasing use of claims emphasising hedonic, indulgence-related aspects appears profitable. For public policy makers, the findings might provide some comfort that not all marketing efforts aimed at promoting more wholesome alternatives of indulgent foods necessarily have negative consequences regarding consumers' eating patterns. Illustrating the consumption-reducing effects of functional health claims attached to indulgences suggests that consumers might be better off if healthy indulgences are reframed in functional terms. Together, this research illuminates the potential of healthy indulgences to become a double-edged sword, in that they stimulate both favourable and unfavourable consumption patterns depending on the attributes emphasised in the claims and, more importantly, depending on which perspective one uses to interpret the findings (e.g. that of the food industry or that of society as a whole).