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Fighting against obesity in Europe”: The role of health related-claim labels in food products

Final Report Summary - OBESCLAIM (Fighting against obesity in Europe”: The role of health related-claim labels in food products.)

The objective of the OBESCLAIM project is to investigate whether and how health-related claims on food products lead consumers to choose healthier foods and whether nutritional and health labelling could thus be considered a valid tool to fight obesity in Europe, taking into account consumers’ personal characteristics (socio-demographic, economic, nutritional and health status, etc.) and psychological and emotional factors.
Four different specific topics were investigated following a multidisciplinary approach:
1. The prevalence of the health-related claim labels in the Spanish food market.
2. The consumers’ understanding, use and perception of and attitudes towards health-related claim labels.
3. How health-related claim labels on food products lead consumers to choose healthier foods and therefore how these claim labels can potentially help to reduce the prevalence of obesity in Europe.
4. The consumer preferences for health-related claim labels and the role of economic, social, psychological and emotional factors.
To achieve the first objective of the project (to ascertain the prevalence of the health-related claim labels in the food market), a literature review of the European regulatory framework was undertaken to identify nutritional and health claims. In addition, data on the presence of different nutritional and health claims were collected from three stores in the Spanish market to cover different retail formats. The main results show that 28% of the total food products selected in the stores carry a health-related claim; specifically, 60% of the selected products carry only one nutritional claim, while the remaining 40% carry more than one. The products with the greatest presence of nutritional claims (NCs) are dairy products and bakery products, while products with health claims (HCs) represent 2% of the total sample and are concentrated in dairy products, which account for 85% of the claims, followed by bakery products (7%) and cereals (2%). The most-used NCs are related to fat, sugar and fibre content and are mostly found in cereals, bread and dairy products.
To achieve the second objective of the OBESCLAIM project, which was to determine how health-related claims are understood by consumers and their attitudes towards them, a literature review on consumer behaviour and preferences and the current trends in obesity and related health claims was performed. Then, 120 people were grouped into obese, overweight and normal-weight categories and a series of sessions was organized to administer a questionnaire and invite them to participate in an innovative test (IAT) to measure more robust implicit attitudes towards health-related claims. The results indicate that no differences exist in the attitudes (explicit and implicit) towards healthy and unhealthy food products among obese, overweight and normal-weight individuals. In general, people value highly and understand nutrition claims, in particular those related to the reduction of fat and sugars, and they value statements regarding the salt content and energy intake far less.
In relation to the third objective, a social psychologist, a behavioural economist and some food technologists were contacted. The results indicate that other psychological factors could trigger people to buy healthy products. These factors are body satisfaction, eating disorders, anxiety and an emotional negative state, and emotional intelligence.
Finally, to achieve the fourth objective of the project, a non-hypothetical experiment was implemented with 300 individuals to explore consumers’ acceptance of two nutritional claims on three kinds of products: potato chips (perceived as less healthy), toasted bread (perceived as healthier) and cheese (perceived as either healthy or less healthy). The claims were “low salt content” and “low fat content” and were more closely related to the obesity epidemic and the emotional and psychological factors affecting consumers’ behaviour towards healthier food choices.
The main results of the project were presented to experts to obtain recommendations for the agro-food industry and public administration, and several articles were submitted to scholarly journals and presented at conferences, in the mass media and in a working session with consumers. The results indicate that consumers value light products (toasted bread, cheese and potato chips) positively, while they do not prefer to buy products with low salt content. Moreover, obese people who are satisfied with their body image (BI) are more willing to pay for chips with nutritional claims (low salt and fat content) than obese people who are dissatisfied with their body image. Finally, the results indicate that people with low emotional intelligence (EI) prefer conventional potato chips to those with nutritional claims. On the other hand, other lifestyles and the interaction between the level of emotional intelligence and the level of knowledge of nutritional claims determine the quality of consumer purchase decisions.
The OBESCLAIM project has made advances in understanding the effect of important psychological factors (BI, EI) on consumers’ decision making when shopping products carry health-related claims. These personal factors should be taken into consideration either by enterprises or by policy makers when designing their marketing and policy strategies, respectively. Hence, these results could contribute to the prevention of diet-related diseases and improve the well-being of societies. Studies indicate that obesity-related diseases increase the costs of public health; therefore, in the long term, the choice of healthier food with health-related claims, by improving the emotional intelligence and body image of individuals, could contribute to the reduction of direct and indirect health care costs. Hence, the expected outcome of the proposed activities is to guide consumers towards healthier eating and purchasing habits, which should have an important impact on the health and well-being of the population in general.
Thanks to the Marie Curie Grant OBESCLAIM, Tiziana de Magistris was able to apply for a competitive position in 2015 in the hosting research centre (CITA) with her research topic. This research position resembles a tenure track; the position lasts until the regional government opens the final examination to obtain permanent status. This final examination is open to researchers working on the same research topic of the position. It is expected that the final examination will take place within the next three years. Then, the fellow Tiziana de Magistris will take this examination to attain the permanent position. She has a clear perspective to obtain permanent employment because of her CV. She is making efforts to publish articles, she is the principal researcher of a national and regional projects and she is engaged in several collaborations with European and international universities. As of January 2019, she is the guest editor of the special issue “Nutrition, choice and health-related claims” for Nutrients journal one of the most prestigious journals in her research line.