FTC Issues Report on Nutrition and Health Claims in Advertising

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The Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Economics today released a staff report titled Advertising Nutrition & Health, Evidence from Food Advertising 1977-1997 by economists Pauline M. Ippolito and Janis K. Pappalardo. The report reviews data collected by Commission staff on the types of claims made in 11,647 advertisements taken from a sample of eight leading magazines between 1977 and 1997. The primary focus of the study is on advertising claims related to health and nutrition, but it also examines other types of advertising claims. The report further reviews how nutrition-related claims in advertising changed under the various regulatory policies in place during these years.

The FTC staff found that nutrition-related claims were a major focus of food advertising and an important focus of competition during the two-decade period covered by the report. Moreover, data indicate a sustained movement toward specific nutrient claims, such as "low fat," in place of, or in addition, to more general nutrition claims, such as "nutritious." And the study finds that changes in advertising content appear to be associated with changes in regulatory rules and enforcement policies.

The study documents an increased focus on diet and health issues in advertising in the late 1980s and changes in the use of health claims before and after the passage of the Nutrition, Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA). For instance, at their peak in 1989, heart disease and serum cholesterol claims were made in 8.2 percent of advertisements, before dropping substantially in the early 1990s following the NLEA's passage. By 1997 heart disease and serum cholesterol claims had again risen somewhat and were found in 3.4 percent of ads, 41 percent of the peak level.

In the post-NLEA period, the report also found a substantial narrowing of the nutrition focus in advertising. For nutrient content claims, total fat had become the primary focus of advertising competition by 1997, replacing claims for other major risk factors such as saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Additionally, comparative claims had dropped to very low levels for all nutrients except total fat. Data indicate that competition on major nutrients peaked in 1991. By 1997, the average number of nutrients in ads with nutrient claims returned to the level of the mid-1980s, a 33 percent drop from the peak.

For health claims, the most dramatic change after the NLEA occurred in the market for fats and oils, where claims about the health reasons to choose one fat over another have been eliminated in advertising. Advertising for fruit and vegetables also fell 50 percent after the NLEA, but orange juice producers who continued to advertise were more likely to use health claims.

The report provides a wealth of detailed information on the content of food advertising under the different policies adopted during the years 1977-1997. Together with other research on consumer food choices under the different policies, it should contribute to more informed policy choices on advertising and labeling policy.

The views expressed in the study are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the view of the Federal Trade Commission or any individual Commissioner.

Copies of the Advertising, Nutrition & Health report are available on the FTC's Web site at www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Bureau of Economics at 202-326-2361, or requests can be e-mailed to troundtree@ftc.gov. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them. To file a complaint, or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

Contact Information

Media Contact:
Derick Rill,
Office of Public Affairs
Staff Contact:
Pauline M. Ippolito,
Bureau of Economics