Cereal box front-of-package claims are misleading, says US study

By Helen Glaberson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition

Front-of-package nutrition-related claims on cereal boxes are potentially misleading to customers, with additional regulation required to protect US consumers, according to University of Yale researchers.

The aim of their recent study, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition​, was to examine parents' beliefs about the meaning of common front-of-package nutrition-related claims on children's cereals and determine whether it would make them more willing to buy the products.

Methodology

Through an online panel, the researchers recruited 306 parents with children between 2 and 11 years old.

The participants viewed images of box fronts for children’s cereals of below average nutritional quality, assessed by a validated nutrient profiling model.

These boxes featured various nutrition-related claims including ‘supports your child’s immunity’, ‘whole grain’, ‘fibre’, ‘calcium and vitamin D’ and ‘organic’.

Participants were given possible meanings for these claims and asked to select any that applied with the option to write in additional meanings.

They also indicated how the claim would affect their willingness to buy the product.

Misinterpretation

According to the results, the majority of parents misinterpreted the meaning of claims commonly used on children’s cereals.

The scientists said the front-of-box claims misled the participants in two ways.

Firstly, consumers inferred that the products presented were more nutritious than other cereals, even though these products were “below average in overall nutritional quality”.

Secondly, they inferred that claims had broader meanings than their literal interpretation.

The scientists said 44 per cent of participants thought nutrition-related claims meant the cereal contained higher nutrition levels compared to other brands of children’s cereal.

In general, beliefs about possible effects on child health outcomes were generally lower, said the scientists, although 80 per cent indicated that the ‘calcium and vitamin D’ claim meant the cereal might help their child grow strong bones.

74 per cent of participants believed that the ‘antioxidants and vitamins’, such as immunity, claim meant it might keep their child from getting sick.

For all claims but organic, approximately half of participants said it would make them more willing to buy the cereal, according to the study.

Only the organic claim made a sizeable number of parents less willing to buy, said the scientists. As an explanation, 30 per cent wrote that organic cereals were too expensive.

Additional regulation

The study’s findings highlight the need for increased regulation of all nutrition-related claims on product packaging in the US, said the scientists.

One proposal made they made is a requirement that any products with nutrition-related claims meet minimum overall nutrition criteria. They said this would ensure that claims do not lead consumers to incorrectly infer that products are nutritious.

According to the researchers, Australia has already passed legislation that will require all high-level health claims to meet nutrition eligibility criteria.

Another option would be to require the FDA to pre-approve all types of claim, not just health claims, before companies are allowed to use them, they said.

This approach would ensure that claims are supported by scientific evidence and are not misleading, and is currently in place in the EU and Canada for structure/function types of claims.

Source: Public Health Nutrition

Nutrition-related claims on children’s cereals: what do they mean to parents and do they influence willingness to buy?

Authors: J. L. Harris, J. M. Thompson, M. B. Schwartz and K. D. Brownell

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