Excess bodyweight is a significant public health problem in the United States, increasing the risk of adverse health conditions including hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Americans are consuming more calories than their bodies need each day and making purchasing decisions using heuristic cues, rather than caloric information. A recent trend in food and beverage labeling is the placement of a natural claim on a product's package. Unfortunately, the United States has not established clear requirements for natural claims and manufacturers are using this term liberally. Using models of information processing as a framework, the goal of this study was to predict the effects of natural claims on message processing and evaluations. It was predicted that natural claims would be perceived as heuristics for healthfulness. A 6 (product) x 2 (claim) experimental design was carried out. Support for the prediction that natural labeled products are evaluated as more healthful was found. Despite the fact that natural products contained the same number of calories as their regular counterparts, participants estimated that natural products contained 18% fewer calories. Implications of these findings for food labeling and public health are discussed.
Keywords: Communication; Elaboration Likelihood Model; Food labels; Information processing; Message cues; Public policy.
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