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When does an image become a health claim?

Images on food and dietary supplement packaging might lead people – appropriately or inappropriately – to infer the health benefits of those products.

A study, led by Naomi Klepacz of the University of Surrey and Dr Robert Nash of Aston University, has shown that people often misremember written health claims on product packages, but that this problem is worse when the packages also feature a health-related image.

The research is being presented at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Health Psychology annual conference today, Friday 18 September 2015.

A total of 372 participants from across five European countries viewed a series of fictional product packages featuring written nutritional claims, prior to completing a memory test. The results show that participants frequently misremembered the claims, but these errors happened more often when the claims were presented alongside a functional image, such as a picture of a brain or a heart.

Naomi Klepacz said: “These results represent strong evidence that images can act as health claims insofar as they can lead people to implicitly infer a product’s health benefits. This process may occur outside of consumers’ conscious control and therefore could be highly pervasive.”

Professor Monique Raats, director of the University of Surrey’s Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre, and a collaborator on the study, said: “This research can inform food labelling policies and also provides us with new research methods to understand how consumers are making use of imagery.”

The research was conducted as part of the European Union-funded CLYMBOL (Role of health-related CLaims and sYMBOLs in consumer behaviour) project (www.clymbol.eu).