Why You Should Look Beyond the Front of the Box: The Seductive Influence of Nutrition Claims

During our grocery shopping trip this past weekend, I was moving quickly down the store aisles looking for pickles when Eleanor, who was riding in the cart so as to keep her contained, stuck her arm straight out, pointed, and exclaimed “Oooooooo, Mom! Princesses!” I looked in the direction of her outstretched finger and saw a row of Spaghetti-O’s cans that featured Disney Princesses; smiling widely. Mission accomplished, I thought. She noticed you, and now wants to eat you.

It isn’t news that companies feature well-known and well-loved cartoon characters as a means of attracting our kids’ attention in the hopes that their requests for these items will become so powerful (or annoying. Or both.) that we will give in and purchase them. But companies have other methods for attracting our attention as well.

One of them is the nutrition-related claim.


What is a nutrition-related claim?

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating claims made on food packages. A vast majority of the claims seen on food packages are considered "nutrient content claims", which describe beneficial levels of a nutrient, compare the level of a nutrient compared to other products, or describe a food as healthy.

Examples of some of these nutrient content claims are "good source of [nutrient]", "low in [nutrient]", "more" or "light", and "healthy."

Roughly 10% of claims are considered "structure/function claims" or "health claims." The former describe a nutrient’s effect on the body ("calcium builds strong bones"), while the latter directly present a relationship between a substance and a health-related condition. A common example of a health claim is that "diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure." The FDA has established recommendations and requirements for each of these types of claims, but only the health claims require the support of “significant scientific evidence and consensus”.

How are nutrition-related claims used by consumers?

Despite there being FDA guidelines on nutrition-related claims, there is concern that these claims implicitly convey benefits that are not directly stated or that a product may be perceived as more nutritious than it really is. For example, a product boasting that it is “a good source of B-Vitamins” may also contain high levels of nutrients that should be limited (e.g. sugar) and low levels of other beneficial nutrients (e.g. fiber) and yet this product may be perceived as healthy, or healthier than other products that do not contain the same claim.

What’s more, messages that directly communicate a product’s health benefits are often not as persuasive as messages that imply benefits. What does that mean? Seeing the statement “good source of B-Vitamins” on your cereal package is more likely to persuade you to buy the cereal than seeing “this cereal is nutritious and will boost your energy.”

A 2011 study shows just how powerful nutrition-related claims can be. Parents, shown nutrition-related claims on common children’s cereals including Cocoa Krispies, Lucky Charms, Fruit Loops, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, inferred that cereals with (as opposed to without) claims were more nutritious and likely provided specific (and unstated) health benefits. What’s more, these beliefs predicted a greater willingness to purchase that cereal for their children.

What’s going on in there?

The use of nutrition-related claims is another method, like traditional advertising, of marketing communications: the process of informing people about product attributes. Sometimes these communications simply highlight aspects of the product that the consumer could identify themselves, such as price or where a product can be purchased. But marketing communications also serve to increase awareness of a brand or food product, which leads consumers, particularly children, to try fewer foods and to only search for brands they already know.

Nutrition-related claims, along with other aspects of a product’s brand – also do something more subtle: they influence taste expectations, consumption experience, preference, and retrospective evaluations of the taste. All together, this leads to increased sales.

Beyond the specifics of what’s said, the framing of the nutrition information is also very important. Studies have shown that food is perceived as healthier (leaner and of higher quality) when it’s labeled as “75% fat-free” than “25% fat.” So powerful are these suggestions of a sensory experience, that a milkshake described as “indulgent” results in greater physiological satiation, as measured by lower levels of the gut hormone ghrelin than a milkshake described as “sensible” but which has the same nutritional value.

Neuroimaging studies confirm that these marketing strategies influence not just self-reported liking, but also its neural representations, suggesting that marketing modifies how much people actually enjoy consuming the food. In one elegant study, researchers examined individuals during functional Magnetic Resonance imaging (fMRI) and presented them Coke and Pespi under two conditions: one in which participants were told what they were consuming and one in which they were not. When participants didn’t know what brand of soft drink they were drinking, their brains were more active when consuming Pepsi compared to Coke. However, when participants knew what they were consuming, their brain activity was significantly greater when consuming Coke versus Pepsi.

What does this mean for you?

Despite how it might sound, you are not powerless to these marketing communications and nutrition-related claims: what you need in order to make a better decision is all the information.

A recent study showed that branding the same food as “fruit chews” versus “candy chews” increased dieters' perceptions of the healthfulness or tastiness of the food as well as its actual consumption. Interestingly, name changes had no impact on non-dieters and disappeared when dieters were asked to consider the actual ingredients rather than just the name. Here are a few other things you can do to make informed decisions:

  • Stop reading Front of Pack (FOP) labels. As with nutrition-related health claims, those FOP labels (you’ll perhaps recognize them most readily on the front of cereal boxes, pictured below) are not regulated. Manufacturers and food companies select them as a means of emphasizing very particular aspects of their product (while deemphasizing others!). And while they might draw attention to one particular aspect of a product, they are not a measure of the overall healthfulness of a product.

  • Use the Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP) and ingredient list. The NFP and ingredient list are far more tightly regulated than any nutrition-related claim or FOP label. Read these closely to determine the overall healthfulness of a product. What’s more, due to differences in measurement and composition of samples, the information listed on the NFP is not necessarily precise. An excellent example of this is trans-fats. Any product with less than 0.5 grams of trans-fats is legally able to list “0 grams of trans-fats” on their NFP. However, they have to accurately report all ingredients used in the product. So if you see “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list, the product contains trans-fats regardless of what the NFP says.
  • Shop the exterior of store. You’ve likely heard this before, but the exterior aisles of grocery stores (mostly) contain all those foods that don’t need labels and ingredient lists and are grown and raised by industries which don’t necessarily have the kind of money and power to influence consumers with marketing communications. (When is the last time you saw an advertisement for Macintosh apples or the nutrition-related claim “contains high levels of Vitamin A which has been shown to support healthy eye development” on a bag of carrots?! Of course, the beef industry is pretty powerful, so this doesn’t necessarily apply wholesale, but you get the picture.)
  • Equip kids with the tools to think critically. With older children, talk about how they feel when they see their favorite cartoon character on a box of cereal and why that makes them want to buy it over another box. Help them to identify how the food makes them feel when they consume it and talk with them about why you choose to make a different decision (than the one they want you to make). Let them create characters for the products that you do choose to buy, and let them paste these creations all over the boxes of products you bring home.
  • Shop alone. As a mother of three young children, I realize how ridiculous this sounds. But if you are able to steel a few minutes away before getting the kids, shopping alone will reduce those nagging requests for foods that you want to avoid buying. If shopping alone is not possible, prepare a game plan before entering the store. Avoid the aisles that are particularly bad offenders of marketing communication and don’t veer from your list.

Happy grocery shopping,

Kiyah Duffey, Ph.D.


Kiyah Duffey received her degree in Nutritional Epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is now an assistant professor in the department of Human Nutrition, Foods & Exercise at Virginia Tech. She is also a freelance nutrition consultant, blogger, and mother to three children (ages 4 and under). In her day job, Kiyah’s research aims to understand the association between diet, obesity and heart disease. She is the author of almost two dozen scientific articles on these topics, and her work has been featured in Men’s Health Magazine, USA Today, and the BBC News and on NPR’s Morning Edition, Good Morning America, and the NBC Nightly News. But her true passion is food: reading and writing about it, shopping for it, talking about it, cooking it and sharing it with others. Someday she’ll figure out how to marry her passion and expertise more fully; in the meantime you can follow her efforts to do so at www.ourregularlyscheduledprogram.com where she blogs about family, parenting, career, and the search for a healthy, balanced life. Or connect with her via facebook or Twitter.