Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science

, Volume 45, Issue 5, pp 698–719 | Cite as

It’s only natural: the mediating impact of consumers’ attribute inferences on the relationships between product claims, perceived product healthfulness, and purchase intentions

  • Christopher Berry
  • Scot Burton
  • Elizabeth Howlett
Original Empirical Research


Foods positioned as natural, all-natural, and 100% natural can be found across a wide variety of product categories. However, the FDA has not provided a formal definition of the term “natural,” and this has resulted in a surge in class action lawsuits filed against manufacturers due to the potentially misleading use of natural claims. Activation theory and the inferential processing literature serve as the conceptual foundation for three studies that examine the effects of natural claims on consumers’ attribute inferences and product evaluations. Results suggest that natural claims affect consumers’ attribute inferences, which in turn influence product evaluations. Furthermore, findings show that the provision of objective information regarding the ambiguity of natural claims moderates the effects of these claims on consumers’ attribute inferences and product evaluations. The implications for marketing management, those involved in litigation driven by potentially deceptive natural claims, and the policy community are discussed.


Product labeling Natural claims Retail food choices False and misleading inferences Health halos Activation theory 



The authors thank the Editor-in-Chief, the Area Editor, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions.

Supplementary material

11747_2016_511_MOESM1_ESM.docx (1.9 mb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 1980 kb)


  1. Anderson, J. (1983). The architecture of cognition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Anderson, J., Wachenheim, C. J., & Lesch, W. (2006). Perceptions of genetically modified and organic foods and processes. AgBioforum, 9(3), 180–194.Google Scholar
  3. Andrews, J. C., Netemeyer, R. G., & Burton, S. (1998). Consumer generalization of nutrient content claims in advertising. Journal of Marketing, 62(4), 62–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Andrews, J. C., Burton, S., & Netemeyer, R. G. (2000). Are some comparative nutrition claims misleading? The role of nutrition knowledge, ad claim type, and disclosure conditions. Journal of Advertising, 29(3), 29–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Balasubramanian, S. K., & Cole, C. (2002). Consumers‘ search and use of nutrition information: the challenge and promise of the nutrition labeling and education act. Journal of Marketing, 66(3), 112–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bauer, H. H., Heinrich, D., & Shäfer, D. B. (2012). The effects of organic labels on global, local, and private brands: more hype than substance? Journal of Business Research, 66(8), 1035–1043.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Berry, C., Mukherjee, A., Burton, S., & Howlett, E. (2015). A COOL effect: the direct and indirect impact of country-of-origin disclosures on purchase intentions for retail food products. Journal of Retailing, 91(3), 533–542.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Brucks, M. & Mitchell, A. (1981). Knowledge structures, production systems and decision strategies. In K. B. Monroe (Ed.), NA - Advances in Consumer Research (Vol. 8). Ann Abor, MI: 750–757.Google Scholar
  9. Burton, S., Garretson, J. A., & Velliquette, A. M. (1999). Implications of accurate usage of nutrition facts panel and information for food product evaluations and purchase intentions. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 27(4), 470–481.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Burton, S., Cook, L. A., Howlett, E., & Newman, C. L. (2015). Broken halos and shattered horns: overcoming the biasing effects of prior expectations through objective information disclosure. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 43(2), 240–256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cao, Z., & Yan, R. (2016). Health creates wealth? The use of nutrition claims and firm performance. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 35(1), 58–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chandon, P., & Wansink, B. (2007). The biasing health halos of fast-food restaurant health claims: lower calorie estimates and higher side dish consumption intentions. Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 301–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Charles, D.. (2016). “Congress just passed a GMO labeling bill. Nobody's super happy about it,” National Public Radio,
  14. Chrysochou, P., & Grunert, K. G. (2014). Health-related ad information and health motivation effects on product evaluations. Journal of Business Research, 67(6), 1209–1217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Collins, A. M., & Loftus, E. F. (1975). A spreading activation theory of semantic processing. Psychological Review, 82(6), 407–428.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Consumer Reports National Research Center (Consumer Reports). (2014a). Food labels survey: 2014 nationally-representative phone survey. Retrieved from
  17. Consumer Reports National Research Center (Consumer Reports). (2014b). Organic food labels survey: 2014 nationally-representative phone survey. Retrieved from
  18. Cornucopia Institute. (2011). Cereal crimes: how “natural” claims deceive consumers and undermine the organic label–a look down the cereal and granola aisle. Retrieved from
  19. Darke, P. R., Ashworth, L., & Main, K. J. (2010). Great expectations and broken promises: misleading advertising, product failure, expectancy disconfirmation and consumer suspicion. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 38(3), 347–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Dimitri, C. & Greene, C. (2002). Recent growth patterns in the U.S. organic foods market. Agriculture Information Bulletin, Number 777.Google Scholar
  21. Esterl, M. (2013). The natural evolution of food labels. The Wall Street Journal, p. B1.Google Scholar
  22. Federal Register. (2015a). Use of the term “natural” in the labeling of human food products; request for information and comments. 80, 69905–69909.Google Scholar
  23. Federal Register. (2015b). Use of the term “natural” in the labeling of human food products; request for information and comments; extension of comment period. 80, 80718–80719.Google Scholar
  24. Fornell, C., & Larcker, D. F. (1981). Evaluating structural equation models with unobserved variables with measurement error. Journal of Marketing Research, 18(1), 39–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Friestad, M., & Wright, P. (1994). The persuasion knowledge model: how people cope with persuasion attempts. Journal of Consumer Research, 21(1), 1–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Garretson, J. A., & Burton, S. (2005). The role of spokescharacters as advertisement and package cues in integrated marketing communications. Journal of Marketing, 69(4), 118–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Greenberg, P. & Czarnezki, J. J. (2016). It’s time for the FDA to define “natural.” Time. Retrieved from
  28. Hamilton, R. (2016). Consumer-based strategy: using multiple methods to generate consumer insights that inform strategy. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 44(3), 281–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hartman Group. (2010). Beyond organic and natural 2010: Resolving confusion in marketing food and beverages.Google Scholar
  30. Hayes, A. F. (2013). Introduction to mediation, moderation, and conditional process analysis. New York: The Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  31. Hayes, A. F. (2015). An index and test of linear moderated mediation. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 50(1), 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hayes, A. F., & Preacher, K. J. (2014). Statistical mediation analysis with a multicategorical independent variable. British Journal of Mathematical and Statistical Psychology, 67(3), 451–470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Howlett, E., Burton, S., Tangari, A. H., & Bui, M. (2012). Hold the salt! Effects of sodium information provision, sodium content, and hypertension on perceived cardiovascular disease risk and purchase intentions. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 31(1), 4–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kamins, M. A., & Marks, L. J. (1991). The perception of kosher as a third party certification claim in advertising for familiar and unfamiliar brands. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 19(3), 177–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kees, J., Burton, S., & Andrews, J.C. (2015). Government efforts to aid consumers’ well-being: understanding federal health warnings and disclosures. In M. Norton, D. Rucker, & C. Lamberton (Eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Consumer Psychology (pp. 530–562).Google Scholar
  36. Keller, S., Landry, M., Olson, J., Velliquette, A., Burton, S., & Andrews, J. C. (1997). The effects of nutrition package claims, nutrition facts panels, and motivation to process nutrition information on consumer product evaluations. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 16(2), 256–269.Google Scholar
  37. Keppel, G. (1991). Design and analysis: a researcher's handbook (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  38. Kowitt, B. (2015). Is the largest natural-foods brand even sold at Whole Foods? Fortune. Retrieved from
  39. Kozup, J. C., Creyer, E. H., & Burton, S. (2003). Making healthful food choices: the influence of health claims and nutrition information on consumers’ evaluations of packaged food products and restaurant menu items. Journal of Marketing, 67(2), 19–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Maheswaran, D., & Chaiken, S. (1991). Promoting systematic processing in low-motivation settings: effect of incongruent information on processing and judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(1), 13–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Mason, K., Jensen, T., Burton, S., & Roach, D. (2001). The accuracy of brand and attribute judgments: the role of information relevancy, product experience, and attribute-relationship schemas. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 29(3), 307–317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Merriam-Webster. (2015). Natural. Retrieved from
  43. Organic Trade Association. (2014). State of the industry. Retrieved from
  44. Petty, R. (2015). “natural” claims in food advertising: policy implications of filling the regulatory void with consumer class action lawsuits. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 34(1), 131–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Rao, A. & Wang, E. Y. (2016). Demand for ‘healthy’ products: the impact of false claims. Kilts Center for Marketing at Chicago Booth – Nielsen Dataset Paper Series 1–019.Google Scholar
  46. Ross, W. T., & Creyer, E. H. (1992). Making inferences about missing information: the effects of existing information. Journal of Consumer Research, 19(1), 14–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Rozin, P. (2005). The meaning of “natural”: process more important than content. Psychological Science, 16(8), 652–658.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Rozin, P., Spranca, M., Krieger, Z., Neuhaus, R., Surillo, D., Swerdlin, A., & Wood, K. (2004). Preference for natural: instrumental and ideational/moral motivations, and the contrast between foods and medicines. Appetite, 43(2), 147–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service. (2012a). Labeling organic products. Retrieved from
  50. USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service. (2012b). Organic 101: what the USDA organic label means. Retrieved from
  51. Voorhees, C. M., Brady, M. K., Calantone, R., & Ramirez, E. (2016). Discriminant validity testing in marketing: an analysis, causes for concern, and proposed remedies. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 44(1), 119–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Wansink, B., & Chandon, P. (2006). Can “low-fat” nutrition labels lead to obesity? Journal of Marketing Research, 43(4), 605–617.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Wilkie, W. L., & Moore, E. S. (2012). Expanding our understanding of marketing in society. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 40(1), 53–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Academy of Marketing Science 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christopher Berry
    • 1
  • Scot Burton
    • 2
  • Elizabeth Howlett
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Marketing, College of BusinessColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  2. 2.Department of Marketing, Sam M. Walton College of BusinessUniversity of ArkansasFayettevilleUSA
  3. 3.Department of Marketing and International Business, Carson College of BusinessWashington State UniversityPullmanUSA

Personalised recommendations