The Federal Trade Commission today released the results of staff research on consumer interpretation of food nutrition and health claims in advertising. The report, titled "Generic Copy Test of Food Health Claims in Advertising" (Food Copy Test), presents the results of a large scale advertising copy test project conducted by the FTC's Bureau of Economics and Division of Advertising Practices. The report examines consumer reactions to three categories of hypothetical print advertisements that make claims about the nutrient content and health benefits of food products.
The first component of the study tested health claims for foods that contain both positive and negative nutrients (for example a food that is high in calcium but also high in saturated fat). The hypothetical ads contained a series of disclosures designed to alert consumers to the presence of the negative nutrient. The results show that clear, direct verbal disclosures appear to be more effective than quantitative disclosures to convey that a food may not be healthful in all respects.
The second component of the study examined health claims for a fictitious luncheon meat that was lower in sodium than other similar products, but not low in sodium in an absolute sense. The test ads were designed to convey to consumers the health benefits of substituting the food for less healthy alternatives, without misleading them into thinking that the advertised product was among the healthiest foods available. The findings show that a substantial minority of consumers continued to report that the advertised food was low in the problem nutrient despite the disclosures and warnings that attempted to place the level of the nutrient in proper perspective.
The third component tested hypothetical health claims for both a food and a supplement product. The claims described health benefits that were based on strong, emerging science, but also involved situations where there was still some uncertainty about the nature or degree of benefit and some inconsistency in the research. The research tested two series of ads that disclosed, with varying levels of strength and detail, limitations in the degree of scientific support for the type of health benefit being advertised. The test confirms that specific disclosures are necessary to alert consumers to limitations in scientific support.
In releasing the report, staff cautioned that "It is important to recognize, when interpreting the results of this research, that subtle changes in the wording or placement of claims and qualifying disclosures could have a significant impact on how consumers interpret an advertisement."
The Commission today has also released "A Business Guide for the Dietary Supplement Industry." The Guide describes in simple terms, the principles of FTC law and uses examples drawn from the supplement industry to show how those principles apply in practice.
The Commission vote to approve release of the Food Copy Test was 4-0.
Copies of the Food Copy Test are available from the FTC's web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-FTC-HELP (202-382-4357); TDD for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710.
(FTC Project No. P914516)