Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity has published a study claiming that parents misinterpret nutrition-related health claims used on children’s cereal boxes. Jennifer L. Harris, et al., “Nutrition-related claims on children’s cereals: what do they mean to parents and do they influence willingness to buy?,” Public Health Nutrition, August 2, 2011. Researchers asked 306 parents with children between ages 2 and 11 to view images of “box fronts for children’s cereals of below-average nutritional quality, as assessed by a validated nutrient profiling model,” featuring claims such as “supports your child’s immunity,” “whole grain,” “fibre,” “calcium and vitamin D,” and “organic.” The study authors provided “possible meanings for these claims” and asked participants “to select any that applied with the option to write in additional meanings,” as well as “indicate how the claim would affect their willingness to buy the product.”

According to the study, “the majority of the parents misinterpreted the meaning of the claims” and inferred that the cereals were “more nutritious overall and might provide specific health-related benefits for their children; and these beliefs predicted greater willingness to buy the cereals.” For example, 74 percent of the participants believed that the “‘antioxidants and vitamins’ (i.e. immunity) claim meant it might keep their child from getting sick.” The study’s authors concluded that the findings “indicate that common front-of-package nutrition-related claims are potentially misleading, especially when placed on products with high levels of nutrients to limit (e.g. sugar, sodium) and low levels of other nutrients to encourage (e.g. fibre, protein). Additional regulation is needed to protect consumers in the USA.”