Part I – Food related nudges
Nowadays, non-communicable diseases (such as cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases or diabetes) are a serious problem, killing around 38 million people every year according to WHO. An interesting fact about them is that they are often caused by an unhealthy lifestyle – tobacco and alcohol consumption, unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity.
Obviously, governments worry about the health spending and so they try to come up with programs to solve these issues. But it seems that many times they fail to deliver the desired results. Why is that?
One of the reasons may be that the programs do not provoke the right actions. A traditional approach is to give people information, based on the assumption that they engage in unhealthy behaviours, because they do not know how harmful they are. Another traditional solution is to increase the costs related to certain behaviours, such as increasing the taxes on tobacco or alcohol. A common problem of these methods is that they may not lead people into action. They rely on the fact that people are rational, always weigh the costs and benefits and decide to do what is best for them.
But these programs fail to take into account that people may behave differently in reality. A mere information about the risks of smoking is not sufficient, since people suffer from an optimism bias – they do not believe that something bad could happen to them. There is also a present bias – the cigarette “now” is so pleasurable and the risk of cancer is “so distant”, which is why people will procrastinate their decision to join a stop smoking program.
The behavioural approach means taking these biases into account and creating nudge-like interventions that really lead to actions and consequently to a better health.
Here are some examples of nudges aiming at improving our diet:
1) A very successful and simple initiative comes from the Nordic countries – they use food labels to simplify decision-making process while grocery shopping. The Nordic Council of Ministers established a set of nutritional criteria, which have to be met in order for a product to get the Keyhole label. People know that if they see the sticker, it means the product is good for their health. Some evaluations of the Keyhole label showed that the level of awareness about it is really high (more than 90 %) and that it truly helps people to choose healthier food products.
2) However, such labelling strategies do not work everywhere. Some countries (e.g. Australia, UK) came with the idea of using the Traffic Lights label, which uses the colours of traffic lights to indicate if a product is healthy (green), unhealthy (red) or somewhere in between (amber). It may seem like a good idea, but somehow the results from the countries that are using this label are mixed. Also, the Traffic Lights label faces a lot of reluctance from food producers. For example, several countries of the European Union fought hard against its use, in order to avoid their typical products being labelled red (e.g. Italy, famous for its meat products, among other things).
3) In the US, they have the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement that uses nudges in school canteens. It is run by behavioural economists from Cornell University and it seems to be quite successful. The interventions are minimal, such as changing the names of the food or changing the ways in which the food is displayed, but it has some positive effects on children. I bet you would also prefer to eat “X-ray Vision Carrots” than “The Food of the Day”.
4) To conclude, I mention my favourite food nudge that comes from Argentina. The problem with hypertension (i.e. high blood pressure) in the city of Buenos Aires became very widespread and so the city decided to remove salt shakers from the tables in the restaurants. Now, consumers may get salt only if they ask for it. This way the liberty of choice is preserved, but the choice architecture changes in favour of breaking the automatic habit of adding salt to your meal. The only pity is that there is no study evaluating the impact of this nudge!
Do you know about some other food nudges that governments around the world used to improve their citizens’ diets? Let us know about them!
Next article: Part II – nudge interventions to deal with smoking and alcohol consumption