What part should the government play in helping us to eat more healthily? Is it enough to “nudge” us towards healthy foods and choices, or does regulation have its place too?
A recent report from the House of Lords looked at what influences us to make healthier choices. It was critical of the government’s approach based on the ‘nudge’ theory, saying it was too limited.
Over the last few years there’s been a lot of attention given to influencing the food choices we make. We’ve had numerous public health strategies on issues such as obesity and other diet-related diseases.
They’ve generally concluded that education alone isn’t enough and that the environment in which we make these choices really shapes our decisions – whether that’s the layout of a supermarket or the availability of cycle routes, for example.
What’s the “nudge” theory?
The government has been talking a lot about nudge. It’s all based on a book by two Americans called Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which argues that it’s possible to alter our ‘choice architecture’ so that we make healthier choices without even realising it. Crucially, they stress that this can be done without restricting freedom of choice and through means other than regulation.
A lot of this makes sense. At Which? we’ve focused on addressing the barriers that make it difficult to eat healthily. For example, reducing salt levels in foods, making the content of foods clear through traffic light labelling and availability of healthy choices in price promotions. Nudge doesn’t really seem that different to it in principle – although it does in scale of ambition.
Regulation plays a part
The House of Lords emphasised that sometimes we really do need regulation and that there’s a difference between restricting the freedom of individuals and restricting the freedom of businesses through regulation.
It criticised the government’s approach to front of pack nutrition labelling, where, (in line with our findings) it said that the traffic light labelling scheme works best. It suggested that the government’s policy (which didn’t support traffic lights) was too focused on what could be achieved through voluntary agreement with the food industry rather than what the evidence shows works best. It also called for regulation of TV advertising to children to be strengthened.
There are some things that can be achieved through voluntary agreement, but these are usually down to the government really pushing the food industry to act and highlighting good and bad practice. That’s what happened with work on salt reduction.
It would be great to think that we could all just be nudged into being healthy and that the food industry would realise that it was in its interests to help us do this.
But in reality there are a lot of different companies, some which produce healthier foods and others that rely on profits from sales of precisely the types of foods we need to eat in moderation. Regulation is therefore necessary as well – and it’s often the case of needing a shove rather than a nudge.