For example, you can call peanut butter, but not only mineral water “natural”. This makes it difficult for consumers to appreciate the positive effects of nutrients.
If a food product claims to be “high in protein,” “organically grown,” “fresh,” and “gluten-free,” which of these claims are true? What about claims like “contributes to biodiversity”? Researchers at Delft Technical University and Maastricht University compared the way consumers interpret the message on the packaging with the legal standards surrounding it in a literature study. In general, they concluded that written health claims are regulated more strictly than environmental or social justice claims.
Health claims, in the form of text and logos, are regulated within Europe by the European Union. This claim could be about the health effects of the product, but also about the amount or absence of certain substances, such as “light”, “low salt” or “no palm oil”. Manufacturers may use the terms “organic” (or ‘organic’) and only mention “eco” under certain circumstances. Other words like “pure” can mean anything. The word “natural” may also be used liberally, although the combinations of “natural flavoring” and “natural source of omega-3” or “natural mineral water” are subject to legislation, and there is usually no definition for the term “fresh” either. As a result, consumers associate their definitions and associations with these terms, with “natural” for some also denoting “healthy” or “environmentally friendly.”
Consumers can also be misled by the images on the packaging. For example, the researchers wrote that many rely on portion sizes indicated when serving and that the photos give us an idea of the ingredients used. Think muesli bars that contain only 2 percent berries, while red fruits appear on the packaging. Additionally, meaningless logos on fast food packaging can make products more attractive, and even items like font or packaging materials contribute to style that can radiate health or craftsmanship.
So there is a mismatch between the actual characteristics of the product and the consumer’s perception, but according to the study, it is not easy to solve. After all, transparent communication doesn’t always benefit sales, even when the message is positive. For example, healthy products are sometimes less automatically tasteless. The researchers concluded that “in addition to formally establishing the correct rules, legislators must also take into account how consumers interpret the message and the stylistic characteristics of packaging.”
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