This study just blew up your ‘healthy’ breakfast

The new paper features a detailed analysis of the four most practiced marketing tactics adopted by cereal brands.

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A new study published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing calls into question the nutritional information printed on the front of cereal boxes. Despite a government enforced mandate, the authors of the recent review motion that the correlation between the purported health value featured on the packaging and the actual nutritional content is zero to nonexistent.

The four types of claims featured the most

The new paper features a detailed analysis of the four most practiced marketing tactics adopted by breakfast cereal brands. In order to properly determine the frequency of each tactic utilized below the researchers began with a list of 107 health claims displayed on packaged foods sold in the U.S. between 1998 and 2007 as recorded in the ProductScan database for food product packages.


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  • Science and absence based focus: This description refers to prefixes like “low  fat” or “light.” Consumers are meant to believe a product is healthy because of specific negative characteristics of food were either altered or completely removed.
  • Science and presence focus: Think Probiotics. This tactic highlights that properties have either been fortified or added, i.e “adding positives, as the study reports.
  • Nature and Absence focus: “No additives,” “No artificial colors.” The product’s health value survives on the claim that no negative characteristics were added.
  • Nature and presence focus: “Made with whole grains.” “Unprocessed.” The healthy aspects of the advertised food have not been altered or removed.

“Healthy Through Presence or Absence, Nature or Science?: A Framework For Understanding Front-of-Package Food Claims”

The most recent report is actually a thorough review of four independent studies previously conducted. Researchers discovered that even though claims made by many of the cereal brands included had a large influence on customer impression, the claims were seldom at harmony with actual nutritional content or weight loss promotion benefits, the authors clarify, “Despite the lack of association between claim type and objective nutritional quality, consumers expect claim type to be a strong predictor of the healthiness, taste, and dieting properties of breakfast cereals.”

In one of the studies reviewed, participants were presented with 633 different cereal brands. Four hundred and sixty brands of the 633, specifically boasted the inclusion of healthy content on the front of the packaging. Seventy-two percent of the cereals reviewed featured some kind of health or nutritional claim, most brands only featured one. “Made with whole grains” and “all natural” influenced respondents perception of taste the most.

For the most part, consumers responded much more positively to the presence of good things as opposed to the absence of “something bad.” A sort of deceptive domino effect ensues as a result of this kind of marketing. When consumers see certain keywords, they often make erroneous assumptions in their head.

Even if a breakfast cereal doesn’t make a categorical claim about weight loss properties or other health aspects, positive nutritional buzz words will belie these impressions in the buyer’s mind. Moreover, the study’s co-author,  Prof. Pierre Chandon, observed that even the positive claims explicitly mentioned on the Front Of Package label rarely accurately reflected the products’ ingredients. or their impact on weight loss.


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CW Headley|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com.