Navigating the Grocery Store Aisle

Syrengelas (2018) used an online survey to assess consumer preferences and understanding of the “natural” label. In the control treatment, where participants received no information, respondents preferred food that was from grass-fed animals and that had no GMOs, no growth hormones, and no antibiot ics and was labeled “natural.” Participants who received information about the USDA definitions of “ organic ” and “ natural ” preferred only meat labeled as grass-fed or as having no growth hormones. The authors then divided the control participants into those that were familiar with the “ all- natural ” definition and those that were not. Respondents in the control group who knew the official definition had only a slight preference for “no growth hormones” and none for the “natural” label. Thus, consumers familiar with the definition of “natural” no longer preferred food labeled that way or food labeled “no growth hormones” or ”no antibiotics.” This study also found that information about “organic” and “natural” labels reduced respondents’ interest in food with those labels, suggesting there was a pre-existing halo effect. All consumers stated a willingness to pay a premium for meat labeled “grass fed” and “no growth hormones,” but only control consumers were also willing to pay a premium for food labeled “no antibiotics” and “natural.” McEachern and Warnaby (2008) compared urban and rural female consumers in Scotland and found that although 97% of respondents reported they had looked at food labels, 71% had difficulty understanding them. Rural respondents (60%) were more likely to be influenced by value-based labels (VBLs), defined as labels that highlighted the quality, animal welfare, or organic status of a product, compared with urban respondents (40%), and consumers interpreted all VBLs as stipulating higher standards than the labels do. Almost 80% of the respondents indicated that they wanted to know more about the origin and the environmental and ethical standards of VBLs, and 60% said they preferred to get this information in such things as in-store leaflets (60%).

“ F R E E F ROM ” L A B E L S

Another indicator of perceived naturalness is the “free from” label, which states that the produ ct does not contain certain additives or ingredients. These labels tend to create a halo effect similar to the one created by “natural” and “organic” labels. Song and Im (2017) used an online experiment to assess consumer perceptions of “additive - free” claims and found that people who were not in the control group were more likely to believe that food labeled “free from” is healthy. This effect was especially strong for unhealthy food items— “ additive- free” claims reduced the perceived unhealthiness of unh ealthy products more than it increased the perceived healthiness of healthy products. Priven et al. (2015) assessed the impact of “free from” labels on Massachusetts grocery consumers’ perceptions of health by creating a fictitious “MUI - free” label. Nearly twenty-two percent of respondents selected an MUI-free product because they believed it was healthier. As a comparison, the percentage of respondents who state the same about the “gluten - free” label was 25%. Using an online survey in four European countries, Hartmann et al. (2018) studied consumer preferences for “lactose - free,” “gluten - free,” “GMO - free,” and “palm oil - free” labels. Participants were asked about their feelings toward each label (“Is your first association positive or negative?”), their perception of the healthiness of the food with each label, and their intention to pay a premium price


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