Sunday, 14 April 2013

Going beyond the 'nudge': Could supermarkets do more to encourage a balanced diet?

It is well acknowledged that what we eat is important and UK Governments have spent a small fortune on campaigns that encourage people to think carefully about what they eat.

These are typically known as nudge strategies. As the name suggests, they attempt to 'nudge' the public into changing their behaviour.

Whether these actually work remains open to debate. For example, most people who smoke know it is bad for their health, but reminding them of that fact will not always have the desired effect on their behaviour. On the other hand, the public smoking ban has been very effective in helping people kick the habit because it removes temptation and encourages people to adopt effective coping strategies. I guess that could be described as a bit more than a nudge!

Anyway, this got me thinking about diet as I was walking around the supermarket. Glancing at the shelves, it struck me that temptation is everywhere. Every aisle is packed with products that contain too much fat, salt or sugar. On rare occasions when you do find something that is healthy for example, a breakfast cereal that isn't packed with sugar, you are only one or two moves away from another product that is often cheaper, but comparatively unhealthy.

My view is that the government can nudge people in the right direction all they want, but when it comes to regulating the way food is pushed towards consumers at the point of sale, something that is well known to affect shopping behaviour, little is done to help encourage people towards a healthier alternative.

One Idea

Supermarket aisle's should not just be split by food type, but by health rating and then by food type. This would allow for a clear distinction between food than should be consumed regularly and occasionally.

The outcome would be two-fold. Firstly, it would be clear to customers what should and should not be consumed on a regular basis. Secondly, while not limiting individual choice it may encourage new patterns of shopping behaviour.

This might make for a really neat experiment.

Participants would be instructed to keep a diary of their normal food consumption and in a between-subjects design, control participants would then be asked to shop from an mock online supermaket orgaised in a traditional manner. An experimental group would shop from a supermarket organised in the new manner shown above.

My prediction: participants in the experimental group would place more healthy items in their basket when compared with controls. They would also show a reduction in total basket calories in comparison to their average shop.

Assuming customers spent the same amount of money or more, this would also make good business sense...especially in the long run if those same customers lived longer!