Nudging shoppers toward healthy eating

1/31/2011

If you want shoppers to eat healthier foods, the famous nudging technique may work.

A new article in the British Medical Journal explores the concept of nudging, in which people are prompted towards being healthier without banning choices or giving them financial incentives.While this approach may work, the analysis states it's not yet clear how effective it could be.

In relation to the grocery store experience, nudging is an effort to make eating healthier foods the default option for shoppers. At the core of this concept is behavioural economics and social psychology, which explore how the way people behave is related to their environments.

"Shaping environments to cue certain behaviours is extremely effective, unfortunately often to the detriment of our health," wrote Theresa Marteau, director of Cambridge University's Behaviour and Health Research Unit, and her co-authors. "The ready availability of foods that are packaged, presented, and engineered to stimulate our automatic, affective system has led us to consume more than we need — consumption that is further primed by advertising."

On the flip side, Marteau and fellow researchers looked at whether nudging works to prompt healthy actions. In their report, they cite a study in which grocers put yellow duct tape along the width of grocery carts. A sign in the carts asked shoppers to put produce in half of the cart. As it turns out, the shoppers purchased twice the amount of fruits and vegetables as they had previously.

Remarking on the Cambridge research to CBC News, Rotman School of Management marketing professor David Dunne at University of Toronto agreed the yellow tape idea is a good one.

Encouraging healthy behaviour by hyping tasty fruits like mandarin oranges in an advertising campaign, paired with in-store promos during the holiday season, is a better strategy, Dunne told CBC.

He gave the example of baby carrots, which have seen huge success over the last few years. Chopping and peeling carrots may cause people to lose interest in packing them for lunch, but the convenience of baby carrots--plus the way they are displayed prominently in the produce department--make them a more likely choice, said Dunne.

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