4 Ways Shoppers Are Misled With Cereal Box Health Claims

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New research looks at how we are enticed by healthy claims on cereal packaging, which is often completely unrelated to actual nutritional quality.

Walking down the supermarket cereal aisle can be a dizzying affair. First of all: So many kinds of cereal. And so many colors, characters, images, and words; if each box made a noise that sounded like how it looked, the cacophony would be deafening.

Children will generally gravitate towards brands with cartoon characters and other kid-bait, the boxes of which are generally placed on lower shelves – that is, eye-level for children. But adults are increasingly drawn in by packaging claims, from “high fiber” and “low fat” to “all natural” and dozens of other seductive labels. We’ve always been suckers for marketing, and with healthy eating being a priority for so many of us ... well, the cereal makers have our number.

Now a group of researchers has done a deep dive into the world of breakfast cereal packaging claims to figure out the nitty-gritty of these ploys. Out of 633 breakfast cereals, 460 had a health or nutrition claim on the package. The researchers found that the healthy claims can be completely uncorrelated with actual nutritional quality. “Yet these messages directly influence consumers' expectations of taste, healthiness and fattening consequences of their food, as well as food choices,” according to the Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires (INSEAD).

Study author Pierre Chandon, the L'Oréal Chaired Professor of Marketing, Innovation and Creativity at INSEAD, and his co-authors conducted four studies in which they “developed and tested a classification of front-of-package claims, established the disconnect between nutritional profile and the front-of-package claims on breakfast cereals and milk products, and how the types of claim predict consumers' choices between different foods with or without food claims.” Good stuff, right?

Honestly, the whole paper is very interesting, but I was fascinated by the four distinct ways that food brands claim to be “healthy” and how those types of claims influence consumers' expectations and choices.

They found that front-of-package food claims can be broadly divided into two categories:

NATURAL Naturalness is defined as “the absence of human intervention,” so those claims would be ones that promote a food being unprocessed or not having artificial ingredients.

SCIENCE-BASED: These claims say that the food has been improved based on nutrition or food science by modifying the amounts of things like vitamins, fats, salt, or gluten.

And then they are again divided into having:

• The presence of positive attributes;
• Or the absence of negative attributes.

This allows for four distinct categories of claims:

1. Science / Removing negatives

These are science-based claims about removing negatives. Claims of this type promise that the food is healthy because negative characteristics of the food have been eliminated or removed altogether. Examples: "gluten-free," "low salt," "low cholesterol," and "light."

2. Science / Adding positives

Claims of this type promise that the food is healthy because positive characteristics have been boosted or added to the food. Examples: "high calcium," "probiotics," "high vitamins," and "high protein."

3. Nature / Removing negatives

These claims suggest the food is healthy because no negative characteristics have been added to the food. Examples: "no artificial flavor," "no preservatives," "GMO-free," and "no pesticides."

4. Nature / Adding positives

These claims suggest the natural positive traits of the foods have not been removed or altered. Examples: "all natural," "homemade," "pure,” and "fresh."

The authors reveal that these claims influence perceptions, even when there is no link to actual nutritional quality. "To our surprise, the correlation between the type of 'healthy' claim made and the actual nutritional quality of the breakfast cereal was almost zero (0.04) to be precise)," Chandon said.

And they found that some claims are more appealing than others.

"We found that consumers had a more positive attitude toward claims that are based on the presence of something good, compared to claims that are about the absence of something bad,” says Chandon.

“For example, people expected breakfast cereals with both ‘adding positives claims' ('high protein,' 'high fiber') and 'not removing positives claims' ('all natural,' 'made with whole grains,' 'wholesome') to be healthier than brands with claims about 'removing negatives claims' or 'not adding negatives claims,' even if the messages claimed the absence of something considered to be harmful."

Although there was no link between the claims and actual nutritional quality, consumers inadvertently read into the claims. Participants expected the type of claim to be a realistic indicator of the taste, healthiness, or dieting properties of a product. Although none of the claims explicitly said that the product would taste better, make them healthier, or thinner.

In the end, we slip into the murky area where marketing and labeling regulations collide. One of the golden standards in the regulation of food claims is that claims displayed on products should not be misleading or deceiving, note the authors. What’s so fascinating about this research is that it shows just how persuasive – and deceptive – even simple words like “natural” or “fresh” can be.

"This should raise alarm bells for regulators," said Chandon. "The first principle of regulating marketing claims is to ensure messages are accurate, but policymakers need to go further. Marketing claims must not only be accurate, they should not be misleading in such a way that consumers expect benefits that a product does not deliver."

Knowing that the rampant claims on cereal boxes are at odds with their actual nutritional quality and the perceptions they instill may be a good place to start when shopping for packaged food. In the meantime, I’m going to go make some “homemade,” “all-natural” granola from scratch with “no artificial flavors” and “no preservatives” ... it just seems like a much easier solution than navigating the psychological gauntlet that is the cereal aisle.