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Consumers Misinterpret Trans-Fat Information

Without supplemental information on recommended daily value, many consumers don’t understand the meaning of trans-fat content on the Nutrition Facts panel, according to marketing researchers.

Betsy Howlett, professor of marketing in the Sam M. Walton College of Business; Scot Burton, Wal-Mart Chair in Marketing; and John Kozup of Villanova University said that the new Nutrition Facts panel won’t help consumers make healthy choices unless they have additional information about trans fat and what constitutes high levels. Their findings were published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

“Nutritionally motivated consumers lacking appropriate prior knowledge make inappropriate product judgments,” said Howlett. “This is a troubling, unintended consequence of the current trans-fat disclosure on the Nutrition Facts panel.”

Trans fat, found in many fried foods and baked goods has no nutritional value. Medical research has shown that trans fat raises levels of “bad cholesterol,” which increases the risk of heart disease.

The researchers wanted to know if consumers benefit from knowing the amount of trans fat in a given food product. They examined how trans-fat information on the Nutrition Facts panel influences risk perceptions and purchase intentions among consumers at risk for heart disease.

Unlike other panel categories, trans fat does not have a percentage of recommended daily value. This creates a misunderstanding for people with no prior knowledge of trans fat and its associated potential health risks.

The researchers conducted two studies. The first asked whether supplemental information about negative health effects associated with trans fat resulted in different behavior among consumers. In this study, the researchers also wanted to know if consumer knowledge was low in the absence of information about trans fat. The second study sought to replicate aspects of the first but also examined the role of differences, such as nutrition motivation, in decision making.

“For a majority of consumers, basic information disclosure about this lesser-known nutrient has a relatively minor impact on product perceptions and evaluations, unless there is additional information available to help them better understand trans-fat levels,” Burton said.

The second study considered consumers’ motivation to process nutrition information. The researchers found that higher levels of motivation and knowledge worked together to result in lower purchase intentions and greater disease-risk perceptions for products high in trans fat. Motivation alone did not lead to healthful purchase intentions.

In both studies, claims such as “low in trans fat” or “zero trans fat” positively affected nutrition perceptions. In the second study, such claims favorably influenced purchase intentions for more nutritionally motivated consumers.

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