Get the picture?
Updated: Oct 23, 2019
Chris Ryder, University of Reading
Who says health claims are just about words? We saw in a previous post how an image was considered a health claim even when it wasn't intended that way. What about cases where images are supposed to be health claims, or are there as icons or symbols to complement the wording?
One of the most common icons that appears alongside health claims is a heart, especially when the claim is specifically about heart health or cholesterol. Who wouldn't associate a heart with something good? And, as a bonus, they can sometimes be big enough to have the health claim inside them, so there's no doubt about how the two are associated.
Other clearly positive symbols that are often used include ticks, plus signs, or arrows (pointing upwards, where the claim is about improving levels of something). It should be obvious how a tick would seem more positive than, for example, a cross:
Sometimes icons are used that might not always be positive, but are clearly so when used in a certain context. A picture of a sun, or perhaps some fruit, might be fairly neutral in some contexts, but if you put them next to a health claim (or even next to each other) suddenly there is the clear impression that the food is fresh and healthy.
Interestingly, some manufacturers like to use these symbols as a way of helping to explain a health claim. The previous blog post talked about how we can sometimes be blinded by the science, but a well-chosen symbol might make it clear how your body is benefiting from a particular product (although we don't like to speculate about what symbol would go with a claim about intestinal transit).
The study of meaning in icons like these is called Semiotics, and what's clear is that there are just as many interpretations of an icon as there are a word – perhaps more! A picture paints a thousand words, after all – but, then again, sometimes a word can paint a thousand pictures. It's amazing that we ever understand each other at all!
Has the imagery on a food product ever affected the way you've thought about its healthiness? Have you ever come across any particularly interesting (or amusing!) symbols? Let us know about your experiences using the Contact Us link above.