Food

European consumers often are failing to understand on-food health claims, project reveals

Researchers from EIT Food’s ‘Health Claims Unpacked’ project have investigated how consumers respond to the way health claims are presented on food packages (the wording, location on pack and use of symbols) and how food companies cope with different regulatory requirements.

They found that communicating health claims on food packages in a way that consumers can understand and that is compliant with the European Union’s regulation on health claims (which has been retained for use in Britain) can be challenging because of differences in culture, language and enforcement policies among the different member states.

How health claims go down between countries

Consumers in all countries found the authorised wording of claims confusing and sometimes off-putting. But there were differences in the way consumers in different countries responded to health claims based on cultural ideas about food and eating. Consumers in the UK and Poland, for instance, were much more open to reading about the health benefits of their food on packages. French consumers, though, were not impressed by claims about the healthiness of food and were more interested in its quality and taste. German consumers responded better to claims having to do with the environmental sustainability of farming and manufacturing processes.

Issues with translating health claims into different languages can also result in an uneven playing field among European food companies, the research revealed.

No such thing as normal

For example, an informal set of general principles linked to the wording of claims agreed by EU Member States advises that the word ‘normal’, which appears in the English version of around two thirds of authorised health claims (e.g. ‘potassium contributes to the maintenance of normal blood pressure’), should be retained in adapted wording and should not be replaced by another term or removed.

But in many of the official Polish translations of health claims, for instance, the word ‘healthy’ (zdrowy​) is used instead of ‘normal’ e.g.  Wapń jest potrzebny do utrzymania zdrowych kości​ (Calcium is needed to maintain healthy bones).

Dr Sylvia Jaworska, a linguist working on the Health Claims Unpacked’ project, pointed out, “Translation is never a matter of one-to-one correspondence. For example, the way the word ‘normal’ is used in English scientific language is different from the way it is understood by Polish speakers, for whom it might even have a negative connotation.”

Consumers in different countries also responded differently when authorised health claims were reworded. Speakers of English and German preferred shorter claims with simple words and grammar and no figurative language (such as metaphors) e.g. Selenium contributes to antioxidant activity vs. Selenium contributes to the protection of cells from oxidative stress. French consumers, however, did not think that figurative language interfered with the scientific meaning of claims.

The principal investigator for the project, Professor Rodney Jones, said: “The way the authorised claims are worded, and the differences in how the regulation is enforced in different countries, makes many manufacturers reluctant to use health claims at all, which means that consumers get less information about the nutritional value of their food.”

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