It is now over 10 years since the European regulation on nutrition and health claims came into force, with the aim of protecting consumers from misleading claims and encouraging healthier choices. The process of assessing the evidence-base for claims is undoubtedly rigorous, but is the regulation having the desired effect on consumer choice?

The wording of European health claims is authorised by the European Commission, who are tasked with taking consumer understanding into account. However, with claims such as “Selenium contributes to the protection of cells from oxidative stress”, it’s perhaps not surprising that many food and drink companies seek to alter the wording of claims to make them more consumer friendly.

The wording of authorised health claims shares some interesting features with scientific writing in general, which may act as a barrier to consumer understanding. These include ‘lexical density’ and ‘nominalisation’. Lexical density describes how many content words are packed into a sentence clause, and the higher this is, the more effort is needed on the part of the reader to work out what is being said. In the example below, sentence a) is an authorised claim and has a lexical density of 6; whereas sentence b) is from a food pack and has a lower lexical density of 4. As a result, the second sentence is likely to be easier to understand. However, with simplification comes the risk of losing important detail that may alter the overall meaning, especially when dealing with complex science.

  1. a) Selenium contributes to the protection of cells from oxidative stress (6)
  2. b) Selenium contributes to antioxidant activity (4)

‘Nominalisation’ is the process of turning a verb into a noun. In sentence a) above, the verb ‘to protect’ has been turned into the noun ‘protection’, and this means the reader has to ‘unpack’ the noun to work out what the action is, and what is being protected from what. This means more effort is needed to ‘decode’ the meaning.

The Health Claims Unpacked project – an EIT-Food funded research project led by experts in linguistics from the University of Reading, and supported by other partners including BNF - is exploring how the wording can affect people’s understanding of health claims. Using a series of online activities, different aspects of health claims have been explored, with some interesting findings so far.

In one activity, users were asked to construct their own health claims for different nutrients by clicking through a series of options to select their preferred wording. The official EFSA-approved wording was chosen on only a very small number of occasions (1-2%), showing that users favoured claims where the wording was changed. The most popular choice was to replace the word ‘normal’, which appears in many approved claims, with an alternative such as ‘healthy’, while the phrase ‘contributes to’ was typically replaced with ‘is essential for.’ Users also tended to simplify the wording of more complex phrases to make them easier to understand. For example, transforming “Potassium contributes to the normal function of muscles” into “Potassium helps your muscles function normally”.

The project’s research is ongoing and we have much more to learn about how the wording of health claims could affect consumer understanding and, most importantly, how claims can affect people’s food and drink choices.

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This work has been funded by EIT Food, the innovation community on Food of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the EU, under the Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.

Last reviewed October 2020. Next review due October 2023.