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Researcher portrait: Dr Monique Raats

Monique Raats-shortenedMonique Raats is the Director of the Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre and a professor at the University of Surrey (UK). She is leading the research in several CLYMBOL studies and has been part of the project from the beginning.

 

How did you get involved in the CLYMBOL project?

I have a longstanding interest in how health is communicated on food packaging. I collaborated with some of the CLYMBOL project partners on an earlier FP7 project called FLABEL. Our work on framing the differences between labels in terms of directiveness was central to the design of all the FLABEL studies. Currently we are conducting the UK’s first pilot randomised control trial to enhance the use of front of pack nutrition labelling with our CLYMBOL colleagues from the University of Oxford. I was also a member of the International Scientific Committee for the Choices programme and now sit on the European Scientific Committee.

 

What do you do for the project?

I am task leader for tasks in “Current status of health claims and symbols: Consumer needs and wants” and I am also in charge of tasks concerning the third work area “Methodological Toolbox”. My team from the University of Surrey’s Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre also contributed to tasks in “Current status of health claims and symbols: Product supply” and is also contributing to CLYMBOL’s fifth work area, on “Public Policy Implications”.

 

What is the outcome of your research?

Utilizing a technique called sorting, we sought to understand how consumers make sense of health claims. Our results demonstrate that consumer acceptance of nutrition and health claims is impacted by a number of factors but primarily by their familiarity with the nutrient or substance within the claim. Whether a claim contains a stated benefit or function appears to be of less importance to the consumer if they are familiar with the nutrient or functional ingredient since they appear to be able to draw on an associative network of stored knowledge and associations which they then use to make sense of the claim.
 
In a second study we investigated the cognitive mechanisms used to understand claims and discover the basis of accurate and inaccurate interpretations. Participants drew the intended inference about the benefits specified in each claim, but the strength of inference varied. Participants drew further inferences about overall health benefits of the nutrients that went beyond the information in the claim. Strength of inference was predicted independently by the strength of the relevant causal pathways within the causal model, and belief in the truth of the claim, but not familiarity with the claim. There are thus two main cognitive mechanisms that explain consumers’ interpretation of claims: causal models and belief in the claim. These exert an independent effect on claim interpretation. Improving consumers’ understanding and interpretation of health claims must therefore address both their wider causal models of health and their knowledge of specific claims.
 
In another set of studies, we used a for food-related research, novel memory-based method to analyse images of food packaging. The research finds that images can act as health claims, by leading people to infer health benefits without prompting. These inferences appear to often be implicit, and could therefore be highly pervasive. The data underscore the importance of regulating imagery on product packaging; memory-based methods represent innovative ways to measure the leading (or misleading) capacity of specific images.

 

What impact do you hope your research will have?

I hope that our research will feed into discussions about how consumers think about and understand health claims and imagery. I also hope, the methods we have developed will be used to study other health claims.

 

 

About the person

Monique Raats is Professor and Director of the Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre. She previously worked at the Institute of Food Research, Health Education Authority and at the University of Oxford. Her expertise is in the area of public health and behavioural nutrition research. Her research covers a wide range of topics (e.g. food choice, policy development, food safety) and methodologies (e.g. qualitative, quantitative, stakeholder consultation). She has also been involved in the evaluation of health promotion programmes and developing tools for use in nutrition education.


Since her arrival in 2000, Monique Raats has played an instrumental role in the success of the University of Surrey’s Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre. In 2011 she joined the UK's Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) and in 2012 she also became a member of the SACN's Subgroup on Maternal and Child Nutrition (SMCN). She is one of the founding members, member of the Board of Directors (2001-2006) and was secretary (2004-2006) of the International Society of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity. The society plays an important role in fostering excellence in research in this field.

 

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