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Consumer study related to food-type dietary supplement labelling(July2003) (6)

July 2003

Evaluation report Series No. 6

1 Executive summary

This study was conducted to gain qualitative information from consumers to assist Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) in the future development and review of food labelling standards, codes of practice and guidelines. In particular, FSANZ has a need for information to assist in determining:

  • the most appropriate criteria and conditions for making specific nutrition content claims, whilst ensuring consistency between Australia and New Zealand; and
  • the possible labelling requirements for food-type dietary supplements (FTDS) from a consumer perspective.

Two concurrent studies were commissioned from NFO Donovan Research that address each of these objectives. This report deals with the findings of the second study, and explored consumer awareness, familiarity, understanding and use of FTDS. The study was also intended to assess the adequacy and credibility of information provided on the label of FTDS in relation to composition and manufacturers’ claims. Lastly, the study examined the feasibility and usefulness of additional labelling information including trigger statements in assisting product selection.

The research was conducted with consumers in Australia and New Zealand, via ten focus group discussions. Participants were selected on the basis of their level of health consciousness, in terms of their food buying, as well as demographic and geographic characteristics.

The results show that participants in this study are almost exclusively influenced by nutrition content claims rather than the current prescribed term ‘dietary supplement’, and whilst they are familiar with the concept of food supplementation, they are unable to distinguish supplemented foods that are denoted by nutrition content claims, and foods that are classified as FTDS, carry nutrition content claims and display the term ‘dietary supplement’ on the label. FTDS were viewed as one of many types of ‘boosted’ products. As a result of their low awareness and use of FTDS, most participants did not have strongly held views about them.

Overall, participants’ perceptions of FTDS and supplemented foods that are not FTDS (but carry nutrition content claims) were equally spread across positive, neutral and negative opinions. There were very few concerns about over-consumption of supplements such as vitamins and minerals, and foods that contained supplements were generally viewed as 'safe’. Many participants however were more interested in, and in some cases concerned about, distinguishing between foods that intrinsically contain particular nutrients and substances that are referred to in a nutrition content claim, and those that have been ‘added’ or supplemented during the manufacturing process. These participants wanted the label to make this distinction.

As an extension of their lack of concern about FTDS, including the supplementation of non-culinary herbs, the majority of were very open to the supplementation of foods in all processed food categories. The only restrictions, they felt, should be placed on fresh foods, such as fruit and vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs and water, and processed foods directly marketed to or for children.

Whilst the majority of participants in this study did not deliberately purchase supplemented foods, achieving real or perceived health benefits motivated those who did. These included addressing vitamin or mineral deficiencies, improving immunity and preventing illness, reassurance and relief from the guilt of a poor diet, and for extra energy. No participant had deliberately purchased a FTDS because of the prescribed term ‘dietary supplement’.

Generally FTDS were not perceived to be as effective a way of supplementing one’s diet, compared to therapeutic-type dietary supplements such as pills and capsules. Pills were viewed by most, but not all, as preferable because they are more concentrated and therefore work better, available in a controlled dose, and are easier and more convenient.

The term ’dietary supplement’, which is currently required on the label of FTDS has little, if any impact on consumers’ awareness or understanding of these foods, owing to:

  • the way in which the prescribed term is displayed by manufacturers, at least on the products used in this research, which, although legible, is given low prominence and renders it “virtually invisible”; and
  • a lack of information and education with regards to its meaning.

Participants described the prescribed term using a mixture of positive and negative terms, with reactions amongst New Zealand participants being more negative than those in Australia. There was general confusion regarding whether the intent behind the term was to caution consumers, or to market the product. In the end, and without information or education, there is no evidence that the current term influences consumers to use these products, if anything it is slightly dissuading.

Consumers do however want packaged food products to be clearly labelled with regards to supplements, and have a preference for more exact, and preferably quantified, claims or statements. Quantified claims, including comparative percentages or exact amounts, were favoured over other suggested alternatives for a FTDS prescribed term, including ‘food-type dietary supplement’ and ‘nutritional supplement’. The latter was seen as a highly positive statement, compared to ‘dietary supplement’, which made the product appear much more desirable.

Although this study did not focus on nutrition content claims, discussion about these was unavoidable given participants’ lack of distinction between foods with nutrition content claims and FTDS with both nutrition content claims and the prescribed term. Nutrition content claims were mostly viewed as a marketing ploy used by manufacturers to persuade a consumer to buy a product. They were treated with scepticism, but not deemed to be untruthful. Rather they were regarded as telling just one part of the story about a product’s nutritional value, and are verified by many consumers using the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP). There was no perception, based on these findings, that nutrition content claims transform a product to being automatically ‘healthy’, however some participants acknowledged that the claim may elevate its perceived healthiness – that is the product is perceived to be ‘healthier’ but not necessarily ‘healthy’.

Understanding and reactions to ‘source of’ claims (‘source of’, ‘good source of’ and a potential new claim ‘excellent source of’) were explored. Most participants concluded that all three terms were relative, that is ‘good source of’ inferred larger amounts of the source nutrient than ‘source of’. However there was no awareness that these terms have a regulated definition based on the % Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) that they contribute (note that not all source claims are defined by RDI eg dietary fibre). All three terms were considered to be highly subjective, and most participants in this study expressed a high level of scepticism about what they implied, regarding them mostly as purely marketing.

Reactions to three potential labelling elements were explored:

  1. A trigger statement which directs consumers to the NIP;
  2. A statement cautioning consumers against regarding FTDS as ‘magic bullets’ – ‘this product should be consumed in the context of a healthy, balanced diet’ and
  3. An additional column in the NIP - % Daily Intake.

None of these elements were particularly well received or supported. Most participants felt that there was no need for such statements, and that in the case of supplements it was up to the consumer to evaluate whether the product was suitable for them. Most felt capable of doing this using the NIP. There was least support for the cautionary statement (2) because it was generally viewed as either obvious, condescending, or meaningless.

Familiarity with food products supplemented with non-culinary herbs was much lower than vitamin and mineral FTDS, and the number of participants who reported using these foods was also very low. Perceptions about adding herbs to foods were either positive or neutral; there were no strong objections or concerns. Compared to vitamin and mineral FTDS, there was much less interest in quantified claims and most felt that content claims such as ‘contains…’ were sufficient.

Throughout the conduct of this research there emerged a need to inform consumers about labels and label information, and an increasingly obvious need for consumer education on how to use and interpret labels. Consumers’ current level of information and understanding about supplementation and nutritional information is such that the pre-condition for informed choice, that underpins the rationale for many labelling requirements, is not being met. Adding further information on food labels to reflect the addition of nutrients or herbal components of foods will not be meaningful to consumers unless they are also educated about the meaning behind that information, and how to use it.

Download the full report [ pdf format 1428 kb ]

Download the Apendices

Appendix A - Recruitment screening criteria Word | pdf
Appendix B - Discussion Guide Word | pdf
Appendix C - Show cards pdf only


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