Shock to stop: How to communicate the dangers of sugar?

Research team investigate how health warnings influence purchases

Computer-generated image

Sweets are everywhere to tempt us (symbolic image)!

Society seems addicted to sugar, but individuals who consume large quantities increase their risk of obesity and other health problems. Can warning labels on sweets curb consumption? Researchers at the University of Göttingen have investigated how such labels can influence purchasing behaviour. Their results show that warnings in the form of images in combination with text can persuade people to buy fewer sugary treats or even to avoid them altogether. Shocking images, similar to those on cigarette packs, are the most effective. Participants in the study who were confronted with such warnings were less willing to buy sweets. The results were published in the journal BMC Public Health.

The researchers carried out an online survey in Germany, collecting responses from over a thousand people over the age of eighteen who were part of a sample approximately representative of the German population. Respondents indicated how they perceived different types of warnings about short-term health consequences such as tooth decay, or more long-term consequences such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Warnings about short-term health problems attracted more attention. "This may be because the consequences are more immediate," explains Dr Clara Mehlhose, at Göttingen University’s Marketing for Food and Agricultural Products group and first author of the study.

Warnings are therefore worthwhile. However, their design requires a careful approach, emphasises Mehlhose: "Our results show that warnings are more effective when they use emotional and already familiar symbols or images that are culturally understood. Shocking images and red stop signs have a particularly strong influence on purchasing decisions." Dr Antje Risius, from the same research group at Göttingen University and study lead, adds: "We have succeeded in narrowing down and better understanding different reactions and defensive behaviour in relation to health warnings." The study provides important insights for the development of strategies that promote healthy eating and thus improve public health. Future studies will show the impact of health warnings together with other health measures such as a sugar tax.

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