Overweight and obesity can increase the risk of many health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers [1
]. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that in 2015, the number of overweight children under the age of 5 was estimated to be more than 42 million globally, and almost half of all overweight children under 5 years old live in Asia [4
]. Compared with the 2015 data of the World Obesity Federation, the overweight rates of children in Taiwan were the highest in Asia (boys: 26.1%, girls: 21.4%) [5
]. High sugar intake is of concern because of its association with poor dietary quality and obesity [6
]. The American Heart Association indicated that both adults and children weight gains over the past 30 years were related to increased sugar intake [7
]. Several studies have also confirmed that children who consume more sugar have a higher obesity rate than those who consume less sugar [8
The WHO defined sugar intake as the consumption of added sugar and natural sugar present in syrups, fruit juices, and fruit juice concentrates and recommended reducing the free sugar intake to less than 10% of total energy intake in both adults and children [11
]. Notably, children in Western countries obtained approximately 16–26% of calories from sugar [12
]. Two nutrition surveys in Taiwan revealed that free sugar intake from snacks and beverages contributed to >10% of calories in children’s total energy intake [13
The introduction of complementary foods to infants is a critical transition in the development of their eating behavior. The taste preference for sugar is mostly innate [15
]. Sugar contributes to the overall pleasure and enjoyment of food. Although genetically related individual differences exist, repeated offering of certain foods can modify innate preferences [16
]. Foterek et al. observed that a higher free sugar intake in infancy might result in a predisposition to a higher free sugar intake in later childhood [17
Commercial complementary foods are convenient for parents to include in their infants’ diet. However, two surveys in the United States found that numerous commercial infant–toddler foods, snacks, and desserts had added sugars or high sugar content [18
]. In Taiwan, 54.4% of 363 commercial complementary foods contained >10% calories from sugar [20
]. When parents purchased infant or toddler food, they considered the information on the food package, including the picture, brand, nutrition label, and claims [21
]. Munsell et al. found that parents preferred products with claims such as “low-calorie”, “real/natural”, “vitamin C” and “antioxidants” when they purchased sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) for their children, even though these SSBs were also nutrient-poor [23
]. An online survey found that nutrient claims on unhealthy products led parents to perceive these products to be more healthy and made them more likely to select these products [24
]. The other study also found that nutrition claim on high-sugar cereals misled parents to believe these products to be a good nutritional quality and parents had greater willingness to buy them [25
]. Thus, it appears that health and nutrition claims can be very misleading and parents really need to understand the nutrition labels and information well to be able to distinguish between correct claims and misleading claims.
Previous studies have reported that parents’ nutrition-related knowledge and attitudes influence their feeding behavior toward children [26
]. Consumers who lack nutrition knowledge may be limited in their ability to understand and evaluate health claims [28
]. By contrast, consumers with greater nutrition-related knowledge can use nutrition labels to avoid misunderstanding products based on health claims [29
]. Andrews et al. suggested that the negative relationship between nutrition-related knowledge and motivation to buy food with nutrition claims should be strengthened [30
]. A previous study in Taiwan found that compared to infant food without “no added sugar” (NAS) claims, a higher percentage of NAS infant food contained more than 10% calories from sugar [20
]. Also, few studies have investigated whether mothers’ nutrition-related knowledge and attitudes affect their decision to purchase children’s food with nutrition claims. Therefore, this study investigated mothers’ sugar-related knowledge and attitudes and the influence of these factors on the mothers’ purchase intention for infant cereal with sugar-related claims.
The present study determined that “attitude toward NAS infant cereal” is a crucial predictor of mothers’ purchase intention for NAS infant cereal. This finding is consistent with those of several other studies. Harris et al. found that parents believed that cereals with nutrition-related claims were more nutritious overall and might provide specific health-related benefits for their children; these beliefs predicted a greater willingness to buy the cereal [25
]. Dixon et al. also indicated that nutrient claims on the labels of energy-dense and nutrient-poor children’s foods led parents to perceive these products to be more nutritious, thereby increasing their purchase intention [24
]. Munsell et al. reported that the nutrition and health claims on SSB packaging were important for predicting parents’ purchase decisions for children’s sugary drinks [23
]. Other studies have also found that consumers have a “positivity bias” toward products with nutrition claims, which indicates that consumers provide a higher estimation of the product in general [35
]. These findings provide evidence that health- and nutrition-related claims increase the perception of the healthiness of products and purchase intention for products among parents and consumers, irrespective of the real nutritional quality of these food products or SSBs.
Our study demonstrated a significant negative correlation between the mothers’ sugar-related knowledge and attitude toward NAS infant cereal. Miller and Cassady observed that people’s nutrition knowledge affected their attitude toward nutrition and health claims, in one of the few investigations on this topic [37
]. In our study, 40% of the mothers misunderstood NAS to mean “sugar free,” and 50–70% of the mothers had the incorrect expectation that NAS infant cereal is more natural, healthy, and has less sugar content compared with other infant cereals. However, NAS infant cereal or other infant food products with nutrition claims may actually contain more sugar than other infant foods. A previous study in Taiwan found that 72.9% of NAS infant food contained more than 10% calories from sugar; this might be because some infant food such ascereal or pure fruit puree contains natural sugar [20
]. Several studies have also reported that many infant and toddler foods with nutrition claims also contain high sugar content or less healthy than those without claims [38
]. In the United States, more than half of children’s food products with health or nutrition claims were found to contain more than 20% calories from sugar [38
]. Lapierre et al. reported that in the southeastern United States, children’s foods with the most nutrition and child-friendly claims had the highest sugar content [39
]. In Brazil, half of children’s foods had nutrition claims, and 74.1% of these were classified as being “less healthy” [40
]. Therefore, a product with nutrition claims is not necessarily healthy for children. Another study reported that women and people with children exhibited a higher interest in nutrition claims than people without children [41
]. If mothers with young children are misled, a negative impact on the children’s health may result.
Previous studies have reported that in Taiwan, children’s free sugar intake from snacks and beverages is higher than the intake recommended by the WHO [13
]. These findings indicate that parents and caregivers in Taiwan provide children with high amounts of sweet foods and beverages. Our study demonstrated an indirect effect between sugar-related knowledge and purchase intention. Through the mothers’ attitudes toward NAS infant cereal, sugar-related knowledge has a significant negative effect on purchase intention for NAS infant cereal. This observation is in concordance with a previous study, which found that knowledge affected purchase behavior by influencing attitude [42
]. A previous study reported that mothers’ nutrition knowledge affects their feeding behavior [26
]. Our study revealed that mothers with poor sugar-related knowledge misunderstood the NAS claim, potentially leading to unhealthy choices for children’s food and excessive sugar consumption by their children. A study confirmed that knowledge about the adverse effects of SSB was negatively associated with SSB intake among adults [43
]. Another study found that parental knowledge about the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines on juice was negatively associated with their children’s consumption of juice and SSBs [27
]. Improving parental knowledge was demonstrated to reduce the consumption of SSBs among young children [44
]. Our study confirmed that mothers with higher sugar-related knowledge had a lower intention to purchase NAS infant cereal.
Our study determined that the accuracy rate of knowledge on “sugar and food” and “sugar intake” among the mothers were lower than those of the other items. More than 90% of the mothers believed that natural fruit sugar is healthier than fructose added during processing. A previous study found that consumers perceive a breakfast cereal labeled as containing “fruit sugar” to be healthier than one labeled as containing “sugar” [45
]. An online survey in the United Kingdom also reported that many consumers (69–89%) misclassify fruit juice as natural sugars and do not avoid these sugars in their daily diet [46
]. In our study, 74.9% of mothers believed that the sweetness in infant cereal was derived from sugar added during processing and not the ingredients themselves. However, a part of the sweetness is in fact derived from the ingredients, such as the sugar in fruit. Approximately 80% of the mothers in this study did not know that free sugar intake should be less than 10% of total energy intake. This result is similar to that obtained in the UK study [46
]. However, in our study, most of the mothers knew that excessive free sugar intake by infants may lead to health problems. Yet mothers may not know how to determine the amount of sugar in products, because 53.7% of them did not know the difference between sugar and carbohydrates. Future research should explore strategies to improve mothers’ knowledge of sugar through education, particularly to clarify their understanding of the healthiness and classification of sugar.
A previous study in Taiwan found that 81% of advertisements for complementary food products contained claims concerning health function or nutrient content [47
]. However, in our study, the mothers had incorrect expectations of the NAS nutrition claim on children’s food packaging. Previous studies have also found that many parents have a positive attitude toward products with nutrition claims and consider these to be healthier than products without such claims [23
]. In the United States, to prevent such claims from misleading parents or caregivers when they attempt to make healthy choices for their children, no nutritional content claims can be made on the food products intended for use for infants and children younger than 2 years [48
]. In the European Union, to prevent consumers from misunderstanding that NAS indicates “less sugar” or “sugar free,” if sugar is naturally present in the food, the claim “contains naturally occurring sugar” should appear on the label [49
]. In Taiwan, there is no rule for NAS claims and no particular standard for other nutrition claims on infant and young children’s food. However, a study in Taiwan found that a high percentage of NAS infant food contained more than 10% sugar content [20
]. Our study found that a high percentage of mothers have incorrect expectations of NAS infant cereal, which could increase their purchase intention. To reduce the chances of caregivers being misled by nutrition claims, in addition to improving nutrition education, the government should modify or enhance the regulation of claims on infant food packaging.
Dixon et al. indicated that parents who read nutrition labels when purchasing children’s food are less likely to make unhealthy food choices than those who do not [24
]. In our study, only 25% of the mothers considered nutrition labels easy to understand. The other study also reported similar finding that parents thought nutrition information on food package is too much and too technical [50
]. A qualitative study in New Zealand found that because parents found nutrition labels difficult to read and interpret owing to the technical presentation forms, they used the list of ingredients to make food choices for their children [22
]. Wills at al. also reported that food labeling is important for consumer to when deciding to buy a certain food or beverage [51
]. Some studies indicated that the front of packaged system of foods could assist consumers to make healthier food choices, for its placement on the front of the package and to the design characteristics, especially color-coded Multiple Traffic Light labels have found that helping consumers easy to understand the nutrient content level, which could positively influence consumers’ choices for healthier food [52
]. In addition to improving parents’ knowledge of nutrition labels and their ability to use it, further research is warranted to develop simple nutrition labels, such as color-coded or healthy logos, to help consumers and parents to understand the nutrient content level and to make healthy food choices.
The present study has some limitations. First, it was based on a convenient sample of mothers and was therefore not representative of the general population. Second, the proportion of mothers with a high degree of education was overrepresented. Notably, despite the group being relatively highly educated, the mothers had low scores about “sugar and food” and “sugar intake”. Also, after sugar-related knowledge, attitudes, and health awareness, then asking mother’s purchase intention might lead to mother tend to increase their purchase intention. Finally, because the survey was conducted online through social network websites, it may have failed to reach minority groups in terms of both education and income. Thus, these results possibly represent the most favorable circumstances, because less educated mothers may have an even poorer understanding of sugar and nutrition information on food packaging. These results affirm the need for increased regulations of labels on infant and children’s food in Taiwan to protect parents from the potentially misleading information conveyed by nutrition claims.