The asterisk: Friend or friend*?
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Chris Ryder, University of Reading
Consider the humble asterisk.
It has many uses, one of which is to redirect readers to another part of a text where they may be more information. However, when it comes to food packaging, it can take on a less neutral and more unfavourable meaning.
EFSA-approved health claims have very specific wording, but food companies are allowed to change the wording to be a bit more understandable to consumers. However, often they are 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. All sounds quite innocent, right?
But our research suggests that many consumers don't see the asterisk in this way. Imagine you see this on your food package:
This product helps maintain alertness
And now compare it to this:
This product helps maintain alertness*
Does the second version give you a different impression to the first?
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 is leading 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 an asterisk after a health claim, have a look and see if you can find where it leads to. Is it easy enough to find? Does it make the claim seem more believable to you? Let us know about your experiences using the Contact Us link above.