How Modification of the Nutrition Facts Panel Influences Consumers at Risk for Heart Disease: The Case of Trans Fat

Chris Bartone
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Key Takeaways
Elizabeth Howlett, Scot Burton, and John Kozup

Executive Summary
In response to a growing body of evidence regarding the negative health effects of trans fat consumption, the Food and Drug Administration recently mandated the provision of trans fat information on Nutrition Facts panels. The specific purpose of this research is to examine how the new information disclosure regarding trans fat content influences the disease risk perceptions and purchase intentions of at-risk consumers. Of particular concern is whether consumers already suffering from medical conditions (i.e., diabetes or coronary heart disease) that elevated their risk of an adverse cardiovascular event could use this information to make healthful dietary choices.

The findings from two studies suggest that consumers at risk for a heart attack lack the necessary knowledge to use information about this potentially “key” health-related attribute to make accurate and appropriate health- and nutrition-related product evaluations. According to Study 1, in the absence of induced trans fat knowledge, higher trans fat levels are not associated with differing levels of either perceived cardiovascular risk or product nutritiousness. This suggests that for a majority of at-risk consumers, information disclosure about this lesser known nutrient has a relatively minor impact on product perceptions and evaluations. This is unfortunate because the target attribute is associated with significant long-term, health-related consequences.

Study 2 explicitly considers consumers’ motivation to process nutrition information; thus, this research extends prior research findings that demonstrate the effects of motivation to process information on the effectiveness of nutrition information provision. The results of Study 2 show that unhealthful trans fat levels result in lower purchase intentions and higher disease risk perceptions for more knowledgeable consumers with higher levels of motivation. Furthermore, when participant are presented with a high trans fat product, the highest purchase intentions and most favorable nutrition perceptions are found for high-motivation/low-knowledge consumers. In the absence of general knowledge about trans fat, and especially without a more specific understanding of the fact that 4 grams of trans fat is high, motivated consumers appear to misinterpret the meaning of the high trans fat level. That is, information without the appropriate knowledge necessary to interpret that information accurately may lead to false conclusions.

Although scientific evidence indicates a relationship between trans fat consumption levels and the development of coronary heart disease, this message does not seem to have reached the majority of consumers, not even those with elevated cardiac risk levels. This strongly suggests that for new Nutrition Facts panel information to have a positive influence on consumers, a significant effort from marketers or policy makers must be undertaken to educate consumers about the significance of this attribute and what constitutes a high level of trans fat.

A potential means for marketers to circumvent this knowledge dilemma is through claims that promote zero trans fat levels. If the Food and Drug Administration permits such claims, it may be advisable for firms offering low–trans fat products to use such a claim to help consumers more accurately interpret absolute trans fat levels. Beyond the use of claims, the results suggest that to position a low–trans fat brand effectively against competitors with higher levels, some consumer education may be needed. For example, a firm developing a promotional campaign around the claim that their product is trans fat free might emphasize that unlike other fat, several grams of trans fat is not low and that federal guidelines suggest keeping trans fat consumption as low as possible. Given the lack of information that aids interpretation of absolute levels in the Nutrition Facts panel, firms that want to differentiate their products from competitors will benefit from some education efforts.

In association with such knowledge-related campaigns, companies may benefit from product reformulation and disclosure to help protect against litigation. Lawsuits have been successfully filed against Kraft Foods and McDonald’s regarding the trans fat content of their foods. More recently, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has filed lawsuits against KFC and Starbucks over the nutritional content of their foods and beverages. A basis for this lawsuit against KFC was the inadequate provision of consumer information on trans fat at the restaurants’ point of purchase. Companies taking a proactive stance to reformulate and label products in an understandable format provide a benefit for consumers, opening up new market opportunities through product differentiation while decreasing their risk of litigation and unfavorable publicity. 

Elizabeth Howlett is Professor of Marketing and Logistics Department of Marketing and Logistics, Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. She received her PhD from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in 1988. Actively involved in consumer behavior and public policy research, she has published in Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing, Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, American Journal of Public Health, Journal of Consumer Affairs, and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, among others.

Scot Burton is a professor and Wal-Mart Chair in Marketing in the Department of Marketing and Logistics, Sam M. Walton College of Business, at the University of Arkansas. His research interests include public policy and consumer welfare concerns, promotion and pricing issues, and survey research measurement issues. In addition to Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, his research has been published in more than 25 different journals in marketing, psychology, and health, including Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Applied Psychology, American Journal of Public Health, Journal of Retailing, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Public Opinion Quarterly, Journal of Management, and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, among other journals.

John Kozup is Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Department of Marketing, College of Business, at Villanova University and founding director of the Villanova University Center for Marketing and Public Policy Research. Professor Kozup’s research interests lie in the areas of consumer information processing, particularly consumers’ evaluation of product claim and risk communications in the pharmaceutical, food, health, and financial services arenas. His work has appeared in such journal outlets as Journal of Marketing, Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Journal of Consumer Affairs, Psychology & Marketing, Journal of Consumer Policy, Advances in International Marketing, and the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Professor Kozup will serve as the conference cochair for the 2008 American Marketing Association’s Marketing and Public Policy Conference in Philadelphia. 

Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring 2008
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Chris Bartone
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