As rates of overweight and obese Americans have reached record-levels, advertising claims have become more common on the fronts of food packaging, creating concerns that they may lead consumers to see foods as healthier than they really are (Brownell & Horgen, 2004; Nestle, 2002; Pomeranz, 2001). The effects of marketing can be significant because nutrition claims made on packaging can create “health halos” that make foods appear healthier than they are, leading to higher consumption yet lower perceived calorie intake. It is important to understand that influence of nutrition claims (e.g. “low fat”, “high fiber”) on health-related judgments and decisions. The effects of health claims on packaging is seen in a study done by Wansink and Chandon (2006) found that labeling both “healthy” and “unhealthy” food as “low fat” reduced calorie estimation by 20%-25%, and increased what was considered to be the “appropriate serving size” by 20%.
Chandon and Wansink introduced the “health halo” effect in 2007, referring to the findings that people tend to underestimate the calorie content of foods in restaurants where food choices are advertised as healthy, compared to restaurants that do not advertise a health image. One healthy attribute leads consumers to assume that foods offer other healthy but unclaimed attributes. Health claims on a product can produce a “halo effect” where consumers reported beneficial effects from the product beyond those specifically mentioned in the claim. This shows that the way consumers are processing the information they seeing on packages is far more complex than them simply processing it, they use their own beliefs and ideas and therefor interpret the information in a different way than it may be presented. For instance many consumers may mistakenly think that low fat equates to low calorie.
The mere presence of a low-fat claim has been shown to lead to underestimation of calories and greater consumption (Wansink and Chandon 2006). In a study products with a half-the-fat claim and half-the-calorie claim 22 percent of the participants made a positive “health halo” inference and thought the product was “healthy” or “good for you.” Though the study found that the products that claimed to be “better-for-you” tended to be “healthier”. But this is not to say that “healthier” is synonymous with “healthy”.
“Labeling snacks as low fat increases food intake during a single consumption occasion by up to 50%. This is robust across both hedonic utilitarian snacks, across young and old consumers across self-reported nutrition experts and novices, in public and private consumption, and regardless of whether people serve themselves or not” Wansink and Chandon 2006.
Studies by Wanskin and Chandon 2006 suggested that low-fat nutrition claims increase consumption because they increase perception of the appropriate serving size and reduce anticipate consumption guilt. “Health halos influence consumption because people feel that they can eat more of healthy food, or can eat more unhealthy (but tasty) food after eating healthy food without suffering any adverse health consequences” (Ramanathan and Williams 2007).
The effect that marketing can have on consumers purchasing habits is shown in Kellogg’s decision to market its first health claim. In 1984, Kellogg worked with the National Cancer Institute to endorse a health claim for All-Bran cereal, within six months the products market share increased by 47%. Kozup, Cyer, and Burton (2003) showed that “when a heart-healthy claim is on the package or menu, consumers generally judge the product to reduce the likelihood of heart disease or stroke, but favorable nutrition information lead to more positive attitudes toward the product, nutrition, and purchase intentions.” When unfavorable nutrition information is available, the heart-healthy claim has no influence on either the evaluations or disease risk perception.
This overall pattern results suggests that consumers may be somewhat wary of health claims and prefer instead to trust the information contained on the Nutrition Facts panel when it is available. Favorable nutrition information on Nutrition Facts panels have even stronger effects than health claims on product attitude and purchase intentions. Never the less, results showed that there were positive effects of the inclusion of a heart-healthy claim on a package or menu.