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Role of health-related claims and symbols in consumer behaviour: the CLYMBOL project

Brussels 25th October 2016. The effect of health claims on people’s choices is limited but the role of health claims can be improved, finds the 4-year EU-project CLYMBOL, which researched the influence of health claims and symbols on consumer behaviour.

The role of health claims can be improved by optimising their relevance, their understandability and tailoring them to specific consumer groups, to whom they may be especially relevant. Public health and commercial organisations can all contribute to improve the current situation. “It is a great opportunity for regulators to see what is needed in terms of ensuring that consumers are not being misled and what is needed to ensure that companies can innovate” said Dirk Jacobs from FoodDrinkEurope which represents the European food and drink industry.

Research revealed that there are considerable differences across countries and between various food categories in terms of occurrence of nutrition and health-related claims on pre-packaged foods. Between 20 and 35% of products in the five analysed countries (UK, NL, DE, ES, SI) have been found to carry claims. Foods carrying health claims were found to have a slightly better nutritional quality than those without, but the nutritional quality of foods with health claims could be improved further by using a nutrient profile model (an algorithm for scientifically calculating the ‘healthiness’ of foods). CLYMBOL researchers also showed that health claims currently available on the market have little public health relevance. They do not represent consumers’ health needs as the health claims found on foods are not strongly related to the disease burden within the EU.

Many consumers do not accurately interpret the meaning of the claims and can have difficulties understanding the scientific language used in food claims. The way consumers understand claims depends on their wider understanding of health, that means they rely on knowledge not presented in claims when interpreting claims. Additionally, they may not consciously differentiate between nutrition and health claims the way that experts and the regulation do. CLYMBOL confirmed that images can also function as health claims, but there is a risk of memory errors. Participants falsely recalled and recognised health claims that they had not actually read in the presence of function images (an image referring to health, e.g. a heart). That means that packaging imagery can lead people to infer health. However, another study showed that health-related images (both claim-specific and overall health) can be helpful for people who are actively searching for products with claims.

Having a specific health goal (like wanting to lower one’s cholesterol) increased choosing products with health claims and health related images and it also increased consumer’s attention to health claims. Clarity and attractiveness of claims was higher when the claim’s nutrients were familiar, however, the chance of risky inferences (i.e. straying too far from the scientific dossier) increased too. With respect to attention and choice, CLYMBOL found an advantageousness of a claim with a familiar nutrient and a familiar function in comparison to claims with unfamiliar elements. Thus, the combination of nutrient and function has to be understandable. Further research, however, shows that in addition, the claim has to contain some novel information – otherwise it loses attraction.

Based on the research interest of different stakeholder groups (industry, regulators, scientists), CLYMBOL performed an inventory of scientific methods, evaluated them and then established recommendations for relevant research questions by stakeholder group.

In June 2016 the project presented main findings at a stakeholder conference in Brussels, including a live vote and an expert panel consisting of representatives from the Commission, the food industry, consumer representatives and food law experts. The project ended in August 2016. Olga Goulaki from the European Commission's Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) said it was “providing some very helpful information”. With the Regulatory Fitness and Performance (REFIT) programme undergoing, the Regulation 1924/2006 will be assessed and CLYMBOL’s results could provide advice on next steps.
Excerpts from the conference’s presentations and the expert panel are shown in the conference video http://clymbol.eu/outcomes/video.html. 

More information about the project can be found on its website www.clymbol.eu and the newsletters http://clymbol.eu/news/newsletters.html show the results of the project in more detail.

Health claims and symbols on food packages are intended to help consumers identify foods that are healthier options, but little is known about their impact. The 4-year research project CLYMBOL aimed to shed light on how consumers interpret health information on labels, and how this affects their purchase and consumption behaviour.

Notes to the editor:

CLYMBOL - Role of health-related claims and symbols in consumer behaviour - received research funding from the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (Contract n°311963).
For more information on the project (including a fuller description of the work and biographies of key consortium partners), please contact:

Sofia Kuhn
Head of Communication – European Food Information Council (EUFIC)
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The consortium

The CLYMBOL consortium consisted of partners from different European countries who have proven outstanding expertise in various fields: cognitive consumer psychology, economics, marketing, nutrition and public health. A retailer is also part of the group, ensuring that the research can be carried out in real-life settings. 
• Aarhus University (Denmark) – Scientific Advisor
• Agrifood Research and Technology Centre of Aragon, CITA (Spain)
• Corvinus University Budapest (Hungary)
• European Food Information Council (Belgium) – Coordinator
• Ghent University (Belgium)
• Globus SB-Warenhaus Holding GmbH &Co. KG (Germany)
• Saarland University (Germany)
• Schuttelaar & Partners NV (Netherlands)
• Swedish National Food Agency (Sweden) -  left in February 2014
• University of Copenhagen (Denmark)
• University of Oxford (UK)
• University of Surrey (UK)
• University of Ljubljana (Slovenia)
• Wageningen University (The Netherlands)

About the European Food Information Council (EUFIC):
The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) is a non-profit organisation which provides science-based information on food safety & quality and health & nutrition to the media, health and nutrition professionals and educators, in a way that promotes consumer understanding. EUFIC receives funding from companies in the European Food and Drink sector, and from the European Commission on a project basis.
For more information about EUFIC see www.eufic.org.