Although not legally defined by the European Union (EU), functional foods are generally considered as foods in a regular diet that offer a particular health benefit beyond their regular nutritional value [1
]. Examples of functional foods include foods enriched with specific minerals, vitamins, fatty acids, dietary fiber, phytochemicals or other antioxidants. Functional foods offer the potential to improve public health when consumed as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle [2
]. The potential health benefits from functional foods are mainly communicated to consumers by means of food claims on product packages. From a consumer point of view, food claims are important information cues that can guide their food choices, enable them to make better informed and healthier food choices and, if appropriately regulated, protect them against unsubstantiated or misleading statements about foods [3
]. At the same time, food claims are used by the food industry to better differentiate their products in the market and, hence, to build and maintain health-oriented competitive advantages [5
]. Moreover, food claims allow food companies to make their corporate social responsibility visible to the public [8
According to the Regulation (EC) 1924/2006 on nutrition and health claims made on foods (the Regulation) that came into force in July 2007, two types of claims may be used on food products: nutrition claims and health claims [9
]. Nutrition claims refer to a food’s particular beneficial nutritional properties, because of specific nutrients it contains in reduced or increased proportion or does not contain. Whereas health claims state the relation between the nutrients and health. Reduction of disease risk claims are a specific category of health claims that link the food with a specific disease. Food claims in general and reduction of disease risk claims specifically are strictly regulated under the Regulation: claims should be based on sound scientific evidence and formulated in a way that an average consumer can understand the beneficial effects of the food. Consequently, foods bearing claims that could mislead consumers, because they are not supported by the evidence or cannot be understood, are prohibited.
Effective use of nutrition information, including food claims, is a question of not only liking and understanding, but also motivation [10
]. While correct understanding of food claims may be sufficient to foster informed food choices, actual healthy choices will largely depend on whether consumers find the claimed health effect sufficiently relevant for themselves in the broader context of food choice. Although consumer reactions to food claims have been studied widely [11
], very few studies have attempted to measure the understanding of claims [13
] and motivational factors underpinning consumers’ reactions to claims [14
]. The latter will be the focus of this study, while understanding of health claims will be one of the main research questions of CLYMBOL (Role of health-related claims and symbols in consumer behavior), which is a recently funded project within FP7 of the European Commission (FP7-KBBE-6-2012-311963).
Given that health is an important motivator of consumers’ food choice behavior [16
], consumers’ health-related motive orientations (HRMOs) in association with consumers’ reactions to functional foods will be studied. HRMOs are defined as the psychological meanings that people attribute to health and that motivate health behavior [17
]. Two independent motivational systems are distinguished, i.e.
, an emotion-driven implicit system of non-conscious motives versus
a cognition-based explicit system constituted of more conscious goals and values [19
]. It is expected that people have different health-oriented goals and needs, which may explain differences in health behavior and, thus, differences in the potential effectiveness between food claims that mainly refer to the explicit HRMOs as a result of the provisions of the current EU regulation. Despite the fact that the content of health claims in particular is restricted by law, food companies still have some degree of freedom, including the specific way in which the health claim is communicated [20
]. A better understanding of consumers’ explicit and implicit HRMOs and their association with consumers’ reactions towards functional foods will therefore contribute to the development of potentially more effective nutrition and health claims and communications.
The objective of the present study was to investigate how consumers’ explicit and implicit HRMOs together with the type of calcium-claim (nutrition claim, health claim and reduction of disease risk claim) would influence their reactions towards calcium-enriched fruit juice. Consumers’ reactions were assessed as perceived credibility and intention to buy the product, while accounting for differences in product familiarity, socio-demographic and attitudinal characteristics. Calcium-enriched fruit juice was chosen as the object of study owing to: (1) its high consumption frequency [21
] and (2) its specific nature as functional food, namely a non-natural type of enrichment (i.e.
, fruit juice is not a typical natural source of dietary calcium) [22
] in a carrier product that is, despite its apparent association with healthy food (its fruit-based origin) [23
], increasingly contested for its high energy and sugar content [24
]. The findings of this study are valuable for improving consumer-oriented positioning and marketing of functional foods.
With the more stringent Regulation, aiming at a better understanding of health claims by the average consumer, there is a need for more insights into consumers’ understanding of and reactions to the claimed health benefits and their relevance. While there is a growing body of literature on consumers’ perception of food claims, to the authors’ knowledge, only two studies examined motivational factors underpinning consumers’ reactions to claims [14
]. Specifically, this study reports on the effects of consumers’ HRMOs together with the calcium-claim type (nutrition claim, health claim and reduction of disease risk claim) on their perceived credibility and purchasing intention of calcium-enriched fruit juice.
A distinction was made between explicit and implicit HRMOs to obtain a more complete understanding of the motivational underpinnings of the health-related behavior [38
]. This multidimensional perspective on the meaning of health has been successful in identifying target health-related motive segments [17
]. While previous studies have focused primarily on the effects of explicit motives on health-related behavior [39
], evidence suggests the importance of implicit motives in predicting health-related behaviors [19
]. The present study confirmed the relative importance of implicit compared with explicit HRMOs in determining perceived credibility of calcium-enriched fruit juice in a sample of Belgian consumers. However, in terms of consumers’ purchasing intention, both the effects of explicit and implicit HRMOs were not significant. This finding suggests that strong implicit HRMOs are not sufficient for consumers to intend purchasing functional foods despite positive evaluations in terms of product credibility. The gap between the perceptual evaluative measures and behavioral intention were previously also observed by Verbeke et al.
]. Moreover, consumers’ credibility and claimed intention may not necessarily translate into choice and dietary behavior.
Overall, the claim type was found to be a more important determinant of consumers’ perceived credibility than their health-related motive orientation. Many studies have shown differences in claim perceptions depending on the combinations of carrier product, functional ingredient and type of claim [20
]. In general, health claims are preferred above reduction of disease risk claims. Additionally, in this study, the effect of claim type was found to be independent of participants’ explicit and implicit HRMOs, as indicated by the insignificant interaction effects.
Practical implications from this study mainly pertain to the formulation and communication of health claims, given that the explicit HRMOs more or less refer to the currently claimed health benefits. According to our findings for the specific case of calcium-enriched fruit juice, health claim formulations and communications that refer to the implicit values of calcium for personal health are expected to be more effective, especially among younger consumers, who are already familiar with the product and have more favorable attitudes towards functional foods. Since health claims can only improve food choices if consumers both understand the health benefit and find it relevant for their personal health, future research is needed on whether consumers understand the content of the claims and whether this understanding is associated with its perceived relevance.
Some limitations should be acknowledged when interpreting our findings. A first limitation pertains to the choice for the specific product-ingredient-claim combination. A comparison between different products varying in perceived healthiness and degree of familiarity would be interesting, since diverse products may elicit different responses to nutrition [44
]. For example, some foods may rather be chosen for satisfying a predominant health motive, whereas others may rather be chosen to satisfy hedonic motives. This study focused only on the presence of a qualifying nutrient (i.e.
, calcium), without addressing the potential absence of a disqualifying nutrient (e.g., added sugar). Since the level of perceived importance is higher for qualifying than for disqualifying nutrients, different reactions to claims could be expected with other nutrients of investigation [46
]. Although fruit juices have a healthy image [23
] and calcium is a well-known positive or qualifying nutrient [45
], the less natural combination of juice with calcium was previously found to result in skepticism and lower evaluations of the product-ingredient-claim combination [28
]. Furthermore, the study was limited to the use of a single example formulation to represent each of the claims. Future studies are recommended to investigate different wordings or visual representations of the claims, i.e.
, claim presentation format or label format effects [22
Second, the specificity of the study sample does not allow generalization to specific defined populations. Future studies are recommended to investigate whether the findings of this study hold equally among particular consumer segments, e.g., people with a specific interest in the product, because of health reasons or consumers who have a family history of food-related lifestyle or other diseases, such as cardiovascular disease [52
] or osteoporosis, or in other countries with a different history of use of food claims.
Third, the present study, just like most consumer research, depended on self-reported data. Although studies using self-reported behavior provide valuable insights, they likely suffer from so-called social desirability bias and, hence, may deviate from actual behavior [53
]. Therefore, more experimental and observational research is recommended using real product settings and shopping environments. As such, potential interactions between brand name, corporate image and perception of claims can be investigated.