Parents Often Misled by Health Claims on Children's Cereal Packages

Parent reading packaging label.

Nutrition-related health claims on children's cereals are often misinterpreted by parents, causing them to infer that products with health claims are more nutritious overall despite actual nutrient quality, finds a study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. The study, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, shows that additional government regulation of front-of-package labeling is needed to protect consumers.

Through an online survey, researchers asked parents with children between the ages of 2 and 11 to view images of actual box fronts of children’s cereals. While the cereals were of below-average nutritional quality, the boxes featured various nutrition-related health claims including ‘whole grain’, ‘fiber’, ‘calcium and vitamin D’, ‘organic’ and ‘supports your child’s immunity’.  Participants were provided with possible meanings for these claims and indicated how the claims would affect their willingness to buy the product.

Parents inferred that cereals containing claims were more nutritious overall and might provide specific health-related benefits for their children, which predicted a greater willingness to buy the cereals. For example, approximately one-quarter of parents believed that the ‘whole grain’ claim on Lucky Charms® and ‘calcium and vitamin D’ claim on Cinnamon Toast Crunch® meant these cereals were healthier than other children’s cereals. With the exception of the ‘organic’ claim, approximately half of parents stated that the claims would make them more likely to buy these cereals. Three-quarters of parents believed that the ‘immunity’ claim on Cocoa Krispies® meant that eating this cereal will keep their child from getting sick. After widespread criticism from the public health community, Kellogg’s discontinued the use of their ‘immunity’ claim.

“Promoting specific positive nutrients in products with other, less beneficial, ingredients (e.g. high-sugar cereals) appears to be a highly effective and low-risk marketing strategy for food companies,” says Jennifer Harris, lead author of the study and the Rudd Center’s Director of Marketing Initiatives. “These claims provide an opportunity to enhance product image and increase sales with limited potential for consumer skepticism or other negative reactions.”

The authors assert that increased regulation from the Food and Drug Administration to reduce confusion surrounding nutrition claims is needed.