Over the past few decades society has gravitated away from unlabelled fresh produce to a market dominated by a commercial volcano of brightly coloured, boldly titled packaged items with a variety of extravagant claims as a means to attract consumer attention.
Given many individuals are committed to health-seeking eating behaviours, manufacturers have capitalised on these efforts by linking certain food products to health, stating numerous and wide-reaching benefits via the nutrients they contain.
Previous research has indeed shown that nutrition and health claims labelled on commercial food products impact consumer preference and purchase behaviour. Studies have also demonstrated that consumers with higher nutrition knowledge or have higher drive for health-seeking behaviours read food labels more often than those with less knowledge or motivation.
Worthy of note, the visual attention given by consumers toward product labels is known to influence food choice, with more visual attention increasing the likelihood that product will be purchased.
Thus, there are a number of factors which influence the purchase deicison for food products. Understanding these factors can be important in influencing “good” versus “bad” food selection when working with non-athlete clients or clients with a predisposition to making “unhealthy” purchases when down the ice-cream isle.
One new study investigated the effects nutrition knowledge, health motivation, visual attention, price, brand, perceived taste and perceived healthiness have on food purchase decisions to elucidate this concept a little more. This study also went beyond previous studies in this domain, by mounting eye tracking glasses on participants to monitor gaze behaviour. In a realistic shopping situation, 156 consumers could purchase one out of 3 orange juice packages labelled with either a nutrition (rich in vitamin C), health (vitamin C improves function of the immune system) or taste (simply delicious) claim.
A few of the results were quite interesting. Firstly, as expected consumers with higher nutritional knowledge and higher health motivation looked at the nutritional and health claims to a greater extent during purchase decisions and were more interested in these claims compared to the other consumers. Nutritional knowledge was defined as a “scientific construct that nutrition educators have created to represent individual’s cognitive processes related to information about food and nutrition”. Health motivation was defined as “consumers’ goal-directed arousal to engage in preventive health behaviours”.
Visual analysis also showed that those who focused more on the nutrition or health claims were more likely to purchase the product with those claims. Despite this, price still had the greatest effect on purchase decision and is still the most decisive aspect for food purchase, followed by perceived healthiness and perceived tastiness. Finally, health claims on the label were less preferred than nutrition claims in this study.
So, what are the Chinese takeaways?
- Those with high nutritional knowledge will still prefer to purchase a product labelled with a nutritional claim, compared to two identical products with health or taste claims. Thus, while practitioners can recommend staying objective with analyses of food items by reviewing nutritional information alone, even those with high nutritional knowledge are susceptible to marketing tactics
- Practitioners should remind their clients that often nutrition or health claims do not mean the product is necessarily “healthier” or more nutritious than unlabelled items
- It may be wise to advise clients not to spend time in the “junk food” isles of the grocery store, as longer gaze applied to items is associated with greater likelihood of purchase
- As price is still the most decisive factor in purchase decision, we should provide our clients with a number of food options within the boundaries of their calorie/macronutrient allowance that are comparably priced to higher calorie or “unhealthier” food options