I just finished reading ‘Why you eat what you eat' by Professor Rachel Herz. Fascinating, and together with Professor Michael Spence’s “Gastrophysics” it caused me to reflect on the radical changes we need to effectively promote healthy and nutritious diets, and reverse the out-of-control trends in malnutrition affecting every country.
GAIN’s purpose is to advance nutrition by improving the consumption of nutritious and safe food. To do this at scale in a sustainable way we consider three aspects of food systems – demand for, supply of and the overall enabling environment to increase the consumption of such foods.
Of these perhaps the most difficult and often-ignored challenge is building the demand for more nutritious foods. Companies do build the demand for their food products —nutritious or otherwise—but they look to government to build the demand for more nutritious eating habits, and thus these types of foods. For companies to “go it alone” on this front is too expensive and can put them at a competitive disadvantage.
But here’s the problem. Governments are not good at developing the demand for nutritious foods. There are exceptions, but most public health campaigns emphasise “good for you” “high in fibre” type messaging. This approach utilises only one button out of a veritable airplane console of buttons that are available to change eating behaviours. To activate all of these buttons, governments need to work with marketing departments and advertising companies for whom identifying and pushing these buttons is their day-to-day job. In this way governments can stay true to their nutritional guidelines but employ engaging and memorable strategies.
The global food industry spends $14bn a year on food adverts that push these non-taste and non-smell buttons.
So, what are these myriad buttons that can influence what people eat that Professor Herz analyses. First, I noticed that the word “price” comes up only once in the book and then to remind us that the higher the price of the bottle of wine, the better it tastes when compared to the same wine labelled at a lower price! It is true that most people on low incomes are very price sensitive, but before they worry about price and affordability, they need to want to buy the food in the first place. Second, surprisingly, only 90 of the 270 pages of the book are devoted to taste and smell. The other 180 pages are devoted to everything else that makes us eat what we eat.
The global food industry spends $14bn a year on food adverts that push these non-taste and non-smell buttons. That is about the same as the entire UKAid budget. Why do they spend this amount (and by implication why do governments need to pair up with them in the effort to stimulate more healthy food)? They do it because the evidence shows that the how food is profiled and contextualised is profoundly influential on what we buy and eat. Some examples of this cornucopia of profiling:
- When the same popcorn is described in two different ways, very different amounts are consumed. When the taste alone is described, less is eaten than when other senses are described such as the smell (of going to the movies), the texture (buttery), and the sound (crunch)
- When Oreo cookies are described as “organic”, more are consumed
- Trail mixes that have an image of running shoes on the front of the pack are considered healthier, even if they are not
- Carrots wrapped in McDonalds paper are rated tastier than the same carrots wrapped in identical paper without the logo!
Colour & Shape
- Round chocolate shapes are rated as sweeter, even when not
- Blue angular plates mean food served on them is more likely to be rated salty
- The occasional redder potato chip in those tube stacks act as traffic lights and are more likely to stop consumption of the next layer of less red chips
- The more food that is piled on a plate, the less good we are at estimating its calorific value (we tend to underestimate the amount)
- High pitched music makes foods taste sweeter, low pitched makes them taste more bitter
- Accordion music in supermarkets results in more French wine being bought
- Comfort food really works—it comforts you when you are stressed and because of that, you eat more and more of it (the Herz book reminds us that “stressed” is “desserts” spelled backwards)
- Restaurant adverts work better when they tell you that this is a place where many engagements and anniversaries are hosted (love and emotion) versus talking about the quality of the food served at the restaurant
- Labels that talk about “health” make us less guilty about eating more. Labels that say the food is “decadent” encourage diminished consumption
Are there examples of this kind of science and art being brought to campaigns for healthy food? Most of the examples in Prof Herz’s book are from the US and other high-income countries. And a new example is VegPower (UK), which identifies vegetable consumption with superhero power.
In the middle and low-income countries there are some examples I know of:
- Ecuador’s Lulun egg consumption campaign
- Indonesia’s Healthy Gossip campaign (involving GAIN)
- Ghana’s Obaasima
But we need more, and they all need to be evaluated from a nutrition and business perspective.
But let’s get real–who will pay for this? I’d like to see some combination of government and foundation funding for this. Governments should be in the driver’s seat. Public funding could be earmarked from sin taxes. And why should they pay for it? Because, the market for healthy food is going to grow, but just not quickly enough. Governments should try to accelerate the nutritious food market development. Doing so will boost the health of their populations and lower health costs (remember poor diet is the biggest cause of global ill health, with massive social costs), incentivise companies to invest in their country (with the jobs and tax revenues that brings), and establish the country as a modern nutrition agenda setter for others.