Small changes to health claim wording have a big impact on EU consumer engagement

28 Jun 2021

An EU-backed study is revealing small changes manufacturers can make to the wording of on-pack health claims to make them more understandable and engaging to consumers, all while respecting the health claim regulation.

Most food companies have marketers, R&D scientists and product developers on their teams; not many have a sociolinguistics expert. However, given the complexity of the European Union’s health claims regulation and the density of information on food labels, language experts are bringing important insights to the field.

Small changes to health claim wording have a big impact on EU consumer engagement

Rodney Jones is professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Reading and head researcher at EU-funded research project, Health Claims Unpacked. The aim of the project is to identify strategies so manufacturers can make EFSA-approved health claims more engaging for consumers, ultimately encouraging more healthy eating habits.

A complex regulation

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is responsible for approving health claims based on scientific dossiers that are submitted by companies. It approves the wording that manufacturers can use and specifies the conditions of use.

Jones, who has dedicated his professional career to understanding how language is used in real-life, believes there is a fundamental problem with the EU’s health claim regulation.

“The regulation might be effective in preventing unsubstantiated claims, [but] it also stops many companies from making valid claims.”

For instance, the rules allows manufacturers to alter the wording of the claim as long as they don’t alter its meaning. However, there is no real, concrete guidance on how to do this and so many brands choose to stick to the exact wording for fear of finding themselves in breach of the regulation. They may be doing so to the detriment of consumer understanding because the wording of many health claims is dense, scientific-sounding and opaque.

An online platform and digital toolkit

To this end, Health Claims Unpacked has developed an online platform where consumers can play games and complete activities based on the wording and visual presentation of health claims. By collecting the data, researchers hope to build a better understanding of how ordinary people – not EFSA scientists and nutrition experts – interpret and process this information.

The platform, which is currently available in English, German, French and Polish and will soon be launched in Romanian and Hungarian, has already yielded some interesting results for food makers.

“For example, we can already see that changing a few words without changing the meaning can make a huge difference,” said Jones. “Take the common phrase ‘…contributes to the maintenance of’. All you need to do is change this phrase to ‘… helps maintain’. This grammatical change is easier for people to understand and process.”

The researchers also found that the use of asterisks, which manufacturers sometimes add to the end of a general claim to link up with the official authorised wording on the back of a food pack, often has the opposite effect. Consumers tend to assume the asterisk represents a disclaimer, automatically diminishing the power of the front-of-pack health claim.

An additional problem is many are simply unaware of the existence of the regulation that makes it illegal for companies to make unfounded claims.

“One of the problems is with the EU’s own public relations campaign because (…) we found that hardly any consumers actually know that health claims are regulated, and so of course they don’t trust them,” Jones told participants at a recent webinar organised by Fi Global Insights. “One way manufacturers could help to increase trust is help people understand that they can’t put just anything on their packaging and there are rules.”

Speaking at the same webinar, Mike Hughes, head of research at market research firm FMCG Gurus, said using only transparent and science-backed health claims was key to winning consumer trust.

“The key thing is transparency. It’s absolutely crucial. Consumers can accept a product being healthy or less healthy […] but what they are less accepting of is feeling they are being misled over the nutritional content or nutritional benefits. With a product, you should avoid positioning it as a magic bullet health solution, avoiding any claims that might be outlandish or that you can’t back up with credible evidence.”

Open access data shared with manufacturers

Health Claims Unpacked intends to make the data and analysis available to food and drink manufacturers so they can put into practice the findings. As the number of consumers using the toolkit increases, the richer and more accurate the data will become. Jones and his team of researchers expect to be able to identify preferences for specific consumer groups according to age, gender, and even certain health conditions.

“[It is] very important for us that we are able to share this information with as many food manufacturers as possible,” Jones said.

For this reason, Health Claims Unpacked’s long-term goal is to have an even wider reach, impacting the health claims regulation itself.

“We hope to be able, with this information and with the help of manufacturers and also consumer organizations, to lobby regulators to help them understand how they can improve this regulation and provide better guidelines to manufacturers so that they are more willing to use health claims on their products.”

Izabela Tańska, food law advisor at IGI Food Consulting, acknowledged the complexity of the current health claims regulation. “The use of claims is sometimes called the linguistic Olympic games because you have to assume some understanding by consumers and some understanding by competent authorities,” she said. “(…) Despite the fact the regulation is in place for many years, there are still many doubts about how to implement and apply it.”

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