Is changing the UK’s ‘food environment’ the key to driving healthier eating? Our guest, Hugo Harper, from the Behavioural Insights team explains further…
Chapter two of the Childhood Obesity plan was published last month, and it takes an important step forward in recognising the importance of our environment for our eating behaviour and weight (PDF).
I mean ‘environment’ in the broadest sense of the word – the shops and streets around us, the information that’s presented on TV, online and in restaurants, and where products are located in stores.
Rather than telling people to make healthier food choices, we should be creating an environment that makes this as easy as possible. We know that giving information and informing consumers is not enough to substantially change food choices.
What is likely to be far more impactful are policies that remove unnecessary prompts to buy and eat unhealthy food from our environment. These restrict promotion of unhealthy foods, so that people aren’t challenged to resist temptation at every turn.
A better food environment
The feeling of slightly regretting eating too much chocolate when you bought them as a two for one deal is something many of us will have experienced.
The proposals to restrict advertising, location based promotions and multi-buy offers should make it that bit easier for people to make these healthier choices, without preventing them making a purchase when they genuinely want to.
Specifically on price promotions, it’s important to realise that not all promotions are created equal.
Even at the same level of discount, multi-buy offers increase purchases more than equivalent price reductions, such as when something is buy-one-get-one-free, people purchase more of it than if it was half price.
This increased purchasing means there’s more food in the house where it’s very easy to access. This can lead to unintended increases in consumption. Over-consuming can lead to weight gain and, overtime, to obesity. It may also increase waste.
The key is to understand the interaction between our psychology and our food environment. When food is readily available and plentiful we’re more likely to buy and eat it. So it’s likely that people will eat whatever they bought on multi-buy, and now have a surplus of, faster than they would have otherwise.
The hope would be to steer these types of promotions towards healthier food, but at the least this should encourage price offers that do not require the consumer to buy more food than they really want.
BOGOF vs discounts
A 50% discount is preferable to buy-one-get-one-free as it lets you make the choice about how much you want. The aim is certainly not to make shopping more expensive, but rather to give consumers greater freedom.
Public Health England’s analysis suggests that limiting price promotions will save us all money in the long run as it will help reduce unintended purchases.
A core part of the plan is catalysing reformulation by industry to make the food and drink we already eat healthier for us. This is the epitome of making things easier for the consumer as it doesn’t require any ongoing willpower.
For example, it would mean you could buy the same drink you did yesterday, but with less sugar. The plan would encourage industry to reformulate where possible while reducing the burden placed on individuals.
Will changing our food environment lead to healthier eating? Do you feel pressured into buying more junk food when it’s on offer?
This is a guest post by Hugo Harper. All views expressed are Hugo’s own and not necessarily those also shared by Which?.