Health halo: “Free from” labels shape consumer perception of product healthiness

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12 Feb 2018 --- Products with a free-from label are seen by consumers as healthier than those without such a label, with the strongest effects occurring for labels indicating that products were free of GMOs and free of palm oil. This is according to research conducted by the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) in collaboration with Professor Michael Siegrist and Dr. Christina Hartmann from the ETH Zurich University.

The research aimed to find out how “free-from labeling” impacts consumers’ perception of food products and whether the absence of a certain ingredient is considered an indicator of improved nutritional value of the product. The research was conducted in four European countries the UK, Sweden, Poland, and France via an online survey among 1950 consumers. 

Four “free from labels” (lactose-free, gluten-free, GMO-free and palm oil-free) were tested using different product categories that these labels typically appear on. Each label was shown on three different food products that are common in all four European countries. For the “gluten-free” label this meant bread/pasta/cookies; cheese/milk/yogurt for “lactose-free;” oil/corn/chocolate for GMO-free;” and margarine/chocolate spread/chocolate for “palm oil-free.”

Healthiness perception, meanwhile, was evaluated by comparing products with the free-from labels to identical products without the labels.

The majority of consumers that took part in the online survey indicated that they had seen labels with the term “gluten-free” before, but not necessarily labels with either “lactose-free,” “palm oil-free” or “GMO-free.”

Additionally, healthiness evaluation, information-seeking, nutrition knowledge and preference for naturalness predicted intention (29-36 percent) to pay a price premium for products labeled free-from.

In general, the “gluten-free” and “lactose-free” labels tend to be more well-known across countries compared to “palm oil-free” and “GMO-free” labels. However, awareness of “free-from” labels varies significantly between countries. Poland is the most aware of “free-from” labels out of the four countries, followed closely by France, then the UK and finally Sweden which shows the least awareness.

The researchers note that some differences were observed among countries in the evaluation of the product-label combinations. Information-seeking, nutrition knowledge and affect were significant predictors of healthiness evaluation. Furthermore, healthiness evaluation, information-seeking, nutrition knowledge and preference for naturalness predicted intention to pay a price premium for products labeled free-from. 

The researchers note that it is important to know how consumers interpret certain food labels as a false interpretation of labels might lead to unintended changes in consumer behavior.

Source: Hartmann, C., Hieke, S., Taper, C., Siegrist, M., European Consumer Healthiness Evaluation of ‘Free-from’ Labelled Food Products, Food Quality and Preference (2017), doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2017.12.009. 

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