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Health Claims | The Asterisk: Friend or Foe?

The humble asterisk (*) has many uses, one of which is to redirect readers to another part of a text where there may be more information. However, when it comes to food packaging, it might not always be so helpful.

Why is there an asterisk next to a health claim?

European Food Safety Authority-approved health claims have very specific wording, but food companies are allowed to change the wording to be easier to understand for consumers (see Regulation of EU Health Claims).1 However, often they are still required to put the original EFSA wording somewhere on the package, too – and they often link the two by using an asterisk or similar device (such as a number in superscript) to indicate that there is a footnote elsewhere on the label. All sounds quite innocent, right?

What do you think when you see an asterisk?

At the University of Reading, we’ve been carrying out focus groups to find out how consumers interpret information they see on food labels and this research suggests that many consumers may have some reservations when they see an asterisk. Imagine you see this on your food package:

This product helps maintain alertness.

And now compare it to this:

This product helps maintain alertness*

It seems that many people will look at the second, spot the asterisk, assume that this means there is a “disclaimer” or “caveat”, and then wouldn’t bother following it to see what it says. And this means that they are less likely to believe the claim, even though it is in fact, linking to information that should make it even more believable: the EFSA-approved wording.

On the other hand, perhaps the EFSA-approved wording should be more obvious. In many cases, the asterisk leads to a very obscure part of the package where it is very hard to find, even if you’re looking for it!

So...

Next time you see a health claim followed by an asterisk, have a look and see if you can find where it leads. Is it easy enough to find? Does it make the claim seem more believable to you?

This article has been adapted by the author for FoodUnfolded. The original article can be found here.

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