Not everyone has impeccable food knowledge, so when a sugary cereal touts itself as being whole grain, fortified with essential vitamins or otherwise good for your child’s health, you may believe it, toss the box in the cart and move on with your shopping trip with some assurance that the product must be okay.

Not so fast. A new study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University shows that parents often misinterpret nutrition-related health claims on children’s cereals, inferring that products with health claims are more nutritious overall despite actual nutrient quality. Published online June 8, 2011, in the journal Public Health Nutrition, the research suggests that additional government regulation of front-of-package labeling is needed to educate consumers.

More than 300 parents with children aged 2–11 viewed images of actual cereal box fronts for kids’ cereals in an online survey. 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 then indicated how the claims would affect their willingness to buy the products.

Parents inferred that cereals bearing health claims were more nutritious overall and might provide specific health-related benefits for their children. These assumptions 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.
  • About half of parents stated that the claims (with the exception of the “organic” claim) would make them more likely to buy the cereals. Three-quarters of parents believed that the “immunity” claim on Cocoa Krispies® meant that eating this cereal would keep their child from getting sick. After widespread criticism from the public health community, Kellogg’s discontinued 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,” stated Jennifer Harris—lead author of the study and Rudd Center director of marketing initiatives—in a press release. “These claims provide an opportunity to enhance product image and increase sales with limited potential for consumer skepticism or other negative reactions.” The authors asserted that increased regulation from the Food and Drug Administration is needed to reduce confusion surrounding such nutrition claims.