The study, published in Appetite, tested the how much attention consumers actually pay to ingredient information on food packaging – and whether this information plays a role in the way consumers evaluate the naturalness of a food.
The study found that consumers pay ‘much less’ attention to ingredient lists than self-reported preferences suggest – concluding that the trend for ‘clean labels’ that contain few additives may not actually have a large impact on consumers evaluation of how natural foods are.
Led by Tracy Cheung from Utrecht University, and in partnership with researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Lund University, the team noted that consumers often report preferring natural products and assume that products based on natural ingredients or without additives are healthier.
“In response food manufacturers have spent substantial efforts in tailoring the presentation of ingredient list information on food packaging with the underlying assumption that consumers infer the ‘naturalness’ of a food product by its ingredients,” wrote the team – who noted that policy makers have similarly focused on providing objective information about the naturalness of ingredients in food products.
“Nonetheless, the effect that ingredient list information has on consumers remains unclear, as there is a lack of scientific evidence demonstrating that consumers actually prefer products with more ‘natural’ ingredients,” added Cheung and her colleagues – who were commissioned by Unilever R&D Vlaardingen.
According to the study, Unilever was involved exclusively in initiating the research design and funding the recruitment of participants for data collection, and was not involved in other aspects of the research process or publication of the study findings.
The new study examined consumers' attention to ingredient information on food product packaging by employing a choice-blindness paradigm which assessed whether participants would detect a covertly made change to the naturalness of ingredient list throughout a product evaluation procedure.
“It has recently been shown that people often fail to detect a mismatch between a previously expressed attitude and a (different) attitude they are subsequently presented with as their own, a phenomenon known as choice-blindness,” said the team. “In this research paradigm participants are asked to make choices but are subsequently presented with the rejected option as being their selected option.”
“Interestingly, participants often not only fail to detect the mismatch between their initial, actual choice and the presented choice, but they spontaneously confabulate reasons for having made the presented (never made) choice,” they noted.
In line with their expectations, Cheung and her colleagues reported that only a low proportion of participants detected the swap of ingredient lists at all.
This detection was improved when consumers were instructed to judge the naturalness of the product as compared to evaluating the product in general, they said – revealing that 23.5% of the consumer group detected the ingredients list change when asked specifically to evaluate the naturalness, compared to 16.9% when evaluating in general.
“Our results are particularly interesting because they indicate that consumers do not attend to ingredient list unless specifically directed towards it by a question about ‘naturalness’,” said the team – noting that consumers pay ‘much less’ attention to ingredient lists than self-reported preferences would suggest.
“As the findings in our current study show, consumers generally pay less attention to information on ingredient lists than would be expected based on self-reports,” they added. “This finding suggests that E-numbers as a source of information do not reach the majority of consumers.”
“On the other hand, our findings do not support the idea that ‘clean labels’, containing a minimum of additives and limited processing, which food manufacturers have increasingly adopted in recent years, would have a large impact on consumers.”
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2015.09.022
“Consumers' choice-blindness to ingredient information”
Authors: T.T.L. Cheunga, A.F. Junghans, et al