Background: Given the rapid rise of free-from products available in the marketplace (especially gluten-free), more research is needed to understand how these products influence consumer perceptions of healthfulness.
Objective: To determine whether perceptions of healthfulness can be generated about free-from products in the absence of risk information.
Design: A survey was administered to 256 adults. Two picture-based food product questions evaluated which products consumers perceived to be healthier. One free-from designation was fabricated (MUI-free), whereas gluten-free was used as the comparison designation. For each question, participants chose which product they thought was healthier (free-from, conventional, or equally healthy).
Statistical analyses: A χ(2) test was run to assess the difference between responses to picture-based food product questions. Multinomial regression assessed variance in responses attributable to participant demographic characteristics.
Results: Among the respondents, 21.9% selected the MUI-free product as healthier, whereas 25.5% selected the gluten-free product as healthier. Frequency data showed that a significant number of participants chose both free-from products as healthier than the conventional products (P<0.001). Regression analysis found that individuals who identified as gluten intolerant or unsure of a gluten intolerance were significantly more likely than other participants to choose the free-from product as healthier compared with choosing "equally healthy" (P=0.040). Hispanics and those with an associate's degree or vocational training were significantly more likely than their referent groups (whites and those with a doctoral degree, respectively) to choose the free-from product as healthier compared with choosing "equally healthy" (P=0.022 and 0.034, respectively). Finally, African Americans were more likely than whites to choose the conventional product as healthier compared with choosing "equally healthy" (P=0.016).
Conclusions: Frequency data demonstrated that free-from products can generate perceptions of healthfulness in the absence of risk information. Self-reported intolerance data suggest that individuals with a heightened concern about the risks associated with gluten may perceive the larger category of free-from products as more healthful. In addition, ethnicity and education level appear to play a role in free-from product perception.
Keywords: Consumer perception; Food labeling; Free-from; Gluten-free; Healthfulness.
Copyright © 2015 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.