In a study where parents are shown the front of boxes of five cereals of low nutritional quality, they were influenced by the misleading health claims on the boxes. Last Friday, this study by Jennifer Harris, Jacqueline Thompson, Marlene Schwartz and Kelly Brownell of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity showed that even well-educated parents were taken in by typical cereal box misleading claims. The article appeared in Public Health Nutrition.
In the study they intentionally selected five cereals of questionable nutritional quality and asked parents if the front-of-the box claims would influence them to purchase those cereals based on the claims. The nutritional rankings came from a validated nutrition-profiling model.
The cereals in the study were
- Cocoa Krispies (39% sugar, 484 mg sodium, 3% fiber)
- Lucky Charms (41% sugar, 704 mg sodium, 4% fiber)
- Froot Loops (41% sugar, 466 mg sodium, 10% fiber)
- Cinnamon Toast Crunch (33% sugar, 710 mg sodium, 3% fiber)
- Koala Crisp (37% sugar, 333 mg sodium, 7% fiber)
The claims made for these cereals (in the same order) were
- Now helps support your child’s immunity-25% daily value of antioxidants and nutrients. Vitamins A, B, C & E.
- With Whole Grain Guaranteed
- Now provides Fiber – a great way to keep kids healthy
- Good source of Calcium and Vitamin D
It is important to note that the subjects were not given the nutritional information above (sugar, sodium, fiber), but only shown the package fronts which contained one of the five above claims.
Here’s what the parents were asked to do. They were shown the front of these five cereal boxes with the accompanying claims, and asked which of several possible statements described the meaning of each claim. They could choose more than one, and could write in additional meanings. They were also asked whether these statements would increase their willingness to buy that cereal.
About one quarter of parents inferred that Cinnamon Toast Crunch, for example, “had been reformulated” and 52% believed that the nutrient (Calcium/Vitamin D) was higher than in other brands. In fact, the label of today’s package (the study was carried out in 2009) shows that it contains no calcium at all! There are similar findings for the other claims as well.
Similarly, half thought Cocoa Krispies and Froot Loops had been reformulated, and half thought that the nutrient was higher than in other brands.
About half of all the parents felt that the labels would make them more likely to buy the cereal: the other half said there would be no difference in their decision.
One very interesting result is that few parents would buy the organic cereal, because they felt that organic cereals were “too expensive.” This is in general borne out by our price comparisons using Peapod prices for the 4 common cereals and the Nature’s Path online store for the Koala Crisp.
The study subjects were 306 parents with 67% having at least one child of 2-5 years and 81% having a child aged 6-11. The subjects were primarily white (83%) and 30% had a 4-year college degree, 48% had some college and 21% had a high school degree or equivalent. Since this an online study conducted using subjects from Survey Sampling International, there is some self-selection bias. Further, all of the subjects had Internet access, since the study was conducted online.
The study concluded that the majority of parents misinterpreted the meaning of cereal box claims, and inferred “that cereals with claims were more nutritious overall and might provide specific health-related benefits…” These claims “predicted greater willingness to buy the cereals.”
This is a very interesting and well-conducted study. But one underlying assumption is that these relatively well-informed parents “should have known better,” because these particular cereals are obviously poor choices.
However, during the study the parents had no access to the actual nutritional information on the boxes. Thus, another way of stating the conclusion is that
Given no other available information, parents will believe the cereal box nutrition claims.
This is still an important finding, but rather tempers somewhat the conclusions the authors reached.
1. Nutrition claims on children’s cereals: what do they mean to parents…
2. Parents often misled by health claims on children’s cereal packages