The psychology of nutrition messages

Adv Health Econ Health Serv Res. 2008;19:145-72. doi: 10.1016/s0731-2199(08)19007-0.


The purpose of this paper is to explore consumer thinking about nutrition decisions and how firms can use consumers' awareness of the links between nutrients and health generated by public health messages to market products, including ones, which have little nutritional value. We approach this issue by tracking the development of public health messages based on scientific research, dissemination of those messages in the popular press, and use of nutrition claims in food advertisements to assess whether firms are timing the use of nutrition claims to take advantage of heuristic-based decision-making. Our findings suggest that the timing of the development of nutrition information, its dissemination in the press, and use in advertising accords well with a heuristic processing model in which firms take advantage of associations between nutrient information and health in their advertisements. However, the demonstrated relationships may not be causal. Further research will be needed to provide stronger and more comprehensive evidence regarding the proposed message hijacking process. If the message hijacking framework is borne out: (1) simple overall health rating scales could significantly improve consumer decision-making, (2) the impact of misleading advertisements could be mitigated by encouraging a multidimensional view of nutrition, and (3) more intensive regulation of product labeling could limit the impact of hijacked messages. Overall, this paper considers a novel hypothesis about the impact of public health messages on nutrition and health.

MeSH terms

  • Advertising / statistics & numerical data*
  • Decision Making*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Nutrition Policy
  • Nutritional Sciences*
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Persuasive Communication*
  • United States