Special Session Summary Consumer Behavior Research and Its Implications For Product/Nutritional Information Programs

Siva K. Balasubramanian, Session Co-chair
Catherine Cole, Session Co-chair
Nadine M. Castellano, University of Iowa
[ to cite ]:
Siva K. Balasubramanian, Catherine Cole, and Nadine M. Castellano (1992) ,"Special Session Summary Consumer Behavior Research and Its Implications For Product/Nutritional Information Programs", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 489-490.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 489-490

SPECIAL SESSION SUMMARY

CONSUMER BEHAVIOR RESEARCH AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR PRODUCT/NUTRITIONAL INFORMATION PROGRAMS

Siva K. Balasubramanian, Session Co-chair

Catherine Cole, Session Co-chair

Nadine M. Castellano, University of Iowa

 

SESSION PARTICIPANTS

 

CHARACTERISTICS OF SUCCESSFUL PRODUCT INFORMATION PROGRAMS

Jay Russo, Cornell University

France Leclerc, Massachusetts Institute of

Technology

 

INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES IN CONSUMERS' WILLINGNESS TO USE NUTRITIONAL INFORMATION

Catherine A. Cole, University of Iowa

Siva K. Balasubramanian, University of Iowa

 

THE EFFECTS OF A PUBLIC NUTRITION INFORMATION PROGRAM ON CONSUMER BEHAVIOR: THE CASE OF INFORMING THE PUBLIC ABOUT THE RISKS OF DIETARY FAT"

Daniel S. Putler, Purdue University

Elizabeth Frazao, USDA

 

NUTRITION KNOWLEDGE LEVELS ABOUT DIETARY FATS AND CHOLESTEROL: 1983-88

Alan S. Levy, Food & Drugs Administration

Marilyn Stephenson, Food & Drugs Administration

 

INSIGHTS FROM MULTIPLE METHODS REGARDING FOOD CONSUMPTION

Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona

SESSION OVERVIEW

On November 8, 1990, Congress updated the 1973 Food and Drug Administration nutritional labeling rule (Public Law 101-535). Previous to this law, the FDA only required a nutritional label on supermarket items when a company made a nutritional claim for a product. The label had to include information about the calories, sodium, fat, protein, and carbohydrates in a single serving. In addition it had to list the percentages of the USRDA for protein, five vitamins, iron and calcium. The new law requires label listing on more food items and more information about more ingredients.

This special session addressed two important and controversial questions about public nutrition programs. First, what should be the consumer behavior objective of such programs? This is an important but unresolved issue because the answer affects the criteria we use to evaluate such programs. One can ask whether these programs should simply attempt to increase the public's awareness about the value of nutritional information? Alternatively one can ask whether increasing consumer knowledge should be a goal? Finally, should we expect consumer eating behavior to change in a desirable way as a result of the public nutrition programs?

Second, what factors influence whether or not public nutrition programs work? The costs and benefits consumers perceive from using nutritional information are some important factors. Other influencing factors include individual difference variables (such as age, education, and social group). In addition, because food means more than just nutrition, these programs may not successfully change behavior even if they increase awareness and knowledge.

We brought together researchers who have attempted to answer these and related questions. The backgrounds of these researchers are rich and diverse, as are the methods which they have employed in the studies included in the session. These methods included literature reviews, surveys, experiments, econometric analysis, and household refuse analysis.

SESSION SUMMARY

The Russo and Leclerc research set a framework for the session by presenting results from a review of 28 field-tested product information programs. Their review revealed the characteristics that distinguish successful from unsuccessful programs. Programs which successfully change consumer purchase or consumption behavior are associated with increases in information benefits and decreases in processing efforts. They may also incorporate consumer input, especially through goal setting. In contrast, hortatory reminders to consumers that neither provide new benefits nor reduce costs are unsuccessful. Similarly a program's magnitude per se is unrelated to its success. The speakers concluded that a cost-benefit analysis of information use from the consumer's perspective should guide the design of product information programs.

Cole and Balasubramanian presented evidence from a preliminary field experiment. In this study, they observed shoppers who were selecting cereals in a supermarket. They told half the shoppers to select a cereal that met certain nutritional constraints; they gave no instructions to the other half. In the no instruction condition, most consumers were satisficers, selecting the first cereal that they inspected. These consumers virtually ignored the nutritional panel on the cereal. In a subsequent interview, most consumers could not recall much nutritional information about the cereals that they had just selected. When the researchers gave consumers the decision rule, they found that elderly consumers searched less extensively and made poorer choices than younger adults. However, accurate nutritional recall improved significantly for both age groups. Apparently to be successful, nutrition programs cannot simply make more nutritional information available. Rather, in order to change buying behavior, programs need to instruct the consumer on how to use the information. In addition, these programs may need to provide additional instructions to groups such as elderly consumers. For example, dietitians might suggest that consumers write relevant information down.

Putler and Frazao noted that prior researchers have not assessed how public nutrition programs affect consumers' total diets. To remedy the deficiency, they studied changes in fat intake between 1977 and 1985, during public information campaigns on the fat/heart disease and cancer link. Consumers who are more aware of the relationship between fat intake and chronic disease have made relatively greater changes in their dietary sources of fat through time. However, the same consumers did not reduce their fat intake to a greater extent than consumers with lower awareness levels. This suggests that increases in diet/disease awareness have not translated into effective dietary changes. The authors speculated about reasons for this contradictory behavior. In addition, they made suggestions for improving the efficacy of public nutrition information programs.

The Levy and Stephenson study discussed findings from national telephone surveys conducted jointly by the Food and Drugs Administration and the National, Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in the 1980's. There has been a dramatic increase in consumer awareness of dietary fats and cholesterol as risk factors for chronic disease. However, there has not been a parallel increase in consumer knowledge levels about how to implement the dietary recommendation to eat less fat. For example, many people do not know what kinds of foods contain saturated and unsaturated fats, nor do consumers understand their co-occurrence in foods. In addition, consumers have substantial problems when they try to draw inferences from common label claims about dietary fats and cholesterol. The most knowledgeable consumers are more educated than less knowledgeable consumers. These results suggest that there is a gap between consumer awareness and effective dietary change. Consumer education initiatives that supply skills and knowledge could bridge the gap but these initiatives should also be easily accessible and understood. (Levy and Stephenson recommend broadcast media for the less-educated population groups.)

Wallendorf noted that a variety of research methods can be used to study food consumption including surveys, direct observation, participant observation and content analysis of household refuse. Each method contributes particular insights on consumers' beliefs about and practices regarding food and nutrition. Use of multiple methods can contribute to a deeper understanding of the confluence of consumer statements (e.g., "I am very concerned about nutrition") and seemingly contradictory consumer behaviors (e.g., observation of the person eating chocolate cake with a cup of coffee). This presentation relied on empirical reflections on these different methods to produce a set of guidelines regarding the contributions and problems of each research approach. Future researchers should be especially careful to allow for differences across social groups (e.g.,social classes, ethnic group).

CONCLUSION

This session has provided some answers to questions which arise now because of the 1990 update of the Food and Drug Administration nutritional labeling law. First, these programs should not simply try to increase the public's awareness of the value of nutritional information. Consumers need education regarding both nutritional facts and how to use that information when selecting foods, if buyer behavior is to be affected. Second, makers of public nutrition programs should be aware of factors which influence how these programs work. Specifically, target market characteristics such as age, education and social group should be considered. In addition attention needs to be paid to the market's perceptions of the costs and benefits of using nutritional information. Finally, programs are more likely to be successful if the programs explicitly recognize the expressive role that food plays in consumers lives. When future investigators assess program effectiveness, they should employ multiple research methods.

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