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Can we trust the health claims on food labels?

30 January 2020 North-West, Germany, United Kingdom Consumers don't always understand or trust the health claims on food packaging labels. An EIT Food project is developing a digital toolkit to enhance the scientific communication of health claims made about food.

Can we trust the health claims on food labels?

Consumers don't always understand or trust the health claims on food packaging labels. The University of Reading are developing a digital toolkit to enhance the scientific communication of health claims as part of an EIT Food project. This project aims to form a set of guidelines for how to communicate health claims more effectively.

The University of Reading is known for its strong focus on interdisciplinary research, and this influence extends to the project team: a unique combination of researchers and professionals with expertise in linguistics, information design, behavioural economics, health and nutrition, and computer science working in partnership with manufacturers, retailers, NGOs and food startups. We spoke to Project Lead Professor Rodney Jones to find out more.

Hi Rodney, how did a Professor of Sociolinguistics first become interested in food packaging?

Sociolinguistics is about the interface between language and society - it's about how we use language to get things done. I've always been interested in the practical side of that, particularly the kind of day to day things that might impact on people's health. I think labels on food are a very good example of how language is used to communicate between what we eat and our health. For consumers, food labels are extremely important for communication relating to our health, however research shows that consumers don't really trust the health claims that that manufacturers make on their food products.

Why don’t people trust the health claims on food packaging?

The problem with trust comes from two places. Firstly, not all consumers realise that health claims are regulated - many people think that manufacturers can just write anything they want on food packages. The other problem with trust is that manufacturers tend to alter the language on packaging which is often interpreted by consumers as marketing language, and although it may retain the meaning of the original claim, it loses the scientific weight of the claim. This can lead to consumers believing health claims are in fact ‘slogans’. Examples of this include claims such as “Biotin fires up your metabolism”, and “Fibre makes you feel good from the inside out”.

Why is there a difference in the way in which regulators and manufacturers approach health claims?

When regulators, such as the European Food Safety Authority, are evaluating a health claim, essentially all they're really interested in is whether it is true or not from a scientific point of view. But when manufacturers and consumers engage in health claims, they engage in what we might call a more pragmatic or more interactional way of using language. What this means is that the purpose of a claim is not just to state a fact, it is also to create a relationship, to entice you to buy a product.  It’s difficult to strike a balance between this need for marketing language, which is there to sell the product, with trust in the health claims made about the product.  

How is the Digital Toolkit project addressing this?

We would like to try to understand what makes a claim effective, and useful. We’d also like to know whether or not people trust it, and if this has a positive impact on their health. To do this, we have developed a digital toolkit which engages consumers through a series of online games to determine how they interact with health claims on different types of food products. These include, for example, a game where users can design their own food packaging and reword health claims to appear in a way they feel is easier to digest. The data we are collecting as part of this will be used to create a set of guidelines on how to communicate health claims more effectively.

Our ultimate plan is to make this toolkit available in a way that consumers, regulators and manufacturers are able to use it to interact together. So for instance manufacturers could use the toolkit to find out what consumers do, and what they don’t, understand by specifically worded claims. Regulators could also use it to inform the language they use in their regulations. As this tool continues to be used and as we continue to gather data from consumers, we will be able to better understand the linguistic elements that influence consumer trust in different health claims.

When will the toolkit be available?

It is online, and you can go and play with it to see for yourself what it looks like. This is the first test version of the toolkit, and from this version we have been able to gather data from a couple of hundred consumers to come up with some preliminary findings. Obviously, our hope is to get a much bigger set of data to and the more data we get, the more valuable the toolkit will be. We will continue to refine it, to make the games a little more interesting, over the next year of the project.

Who is involved in the project team?

Our project team is made up of a really unique and diverse collection of researchers and professionals. At the University of Reading we have expertise from across linguistics, information design, nutritional science and behavioural economics. We have been working with the Technical University of Munich, who have a digital media lab - this has been really important in the development of the toolkit and figuring out the best way to engage users. We've also been working with the British Nutrition Foundation, looking at the content gap between data and other kinds of educational materials, that are helping to connect us with other important stakeholders. And finally, we're working with a tech startup called Food Maestro who have developed an app related to food that helps consumers answer the question, ‘Can I eat this?’.

How did you get involved with these other partners?

One of the valuable things about being an EIT Food Partner, is the access to other partner and startup organisations in the network. When we started to think about what we wanted to do with this project, we started to look around for partners that had the kinds of skills and capabilities that we thought would be able to contribute to the project. We felt that the Technical University of Munich, British Nutrition Foundation and Food Maestro were a really good fit, because each of them brings a different kind of expertise to the project, as well as different perspectives.

EIT Food created an ideal platform for us to make these connections, because the only way you can do this kind of research properly is by putting together these interdisciplinary, cross-institutional, cross-sector teams.

What tips would you give to other project teams wanting to work together in this way?

My tips would be to see the value in intercultural communication and agree on ways of working at the start of the project and maintain these throughout.

When you work with such diverse teams from different backgrounds, thinking about intercultural communication is important. The communication problems surrounding health claims on food packaging come from the fact that regulators, manufacturers and consumers all speak different technical languages and have different ways of understanding and interpreting statements about food. So, the point of our project is to bring people together in dialogue and help them to interact more with each other, to understand their different perspectives. It makes sense to exemplify that methodology in terms of our own way of working. This means we make time for each other - rather than working on our respective parts of the project in isolation and communicating mainly via email, we have weekly meetings with our partners where we talk things out, either via Skype or face to face. We're constantly keeping lines of communication open.

I think it does help that there are linguists involved in the project, because we are sensitive to these cultural differences between different disciplines.

How will this project help to transform the food system?

Currently we have a list of approved health claims about food from scientists that many consumers can’t understand, and a lot of information on food packages that consumers don't trust. If we can contribute to ensuring food packaging allows consumers to get clear, trusted information about the health benefits of their food as part of this project, I think that would help people make better choices about their diets. Perhaps even more important, are the kinds of digital resources that we're developing - creating a situation in which consumers, manufacturers and regulators can interact and learn from each other. Enabling consumers to create data about their understanding and preferences, which can then feed back into decisions by regulators and choices by manufacturers will give consumers the power to help transform food packaging into something which really works for them.

 

Explore the digital toolkit or find out more about the research.  

To learn more about project partner FoodMaestro and how they are helping consumers answer the all-important question ‘Can I eat this?’ click here.

 

Professor Rodney Jones is a Professor of Sociolinguistics and Head of Department of the English Language and Applied Linguistics at the University of Reading.

About the author: Dr Lucy Wallace is a freelance writer with a background in research communications and an interest in novel engagement methods with diverse audiences.