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dispatches from ISA conference 2014

Behavioural economist: Do the nutritional thinking for people if you want change

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn+

09-Apr-2014
Last updated the 09-Apr-2014 at 14:35 GMT

“We have to eat several times a day and we can’t be working that out like it’s solving a mathematical problem every time,” according to a behavioural economist.
“We have to eat several times a day and we can’t be working that out like it’s solving a mathematical problem every time,” according to a behavioural economist.
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Consumers don’t really want more nutritional information, they want an easy life, according to a behavioural economist talking at a conference in Brussels.

Speaking at the International Sweetener Association (ISA) Conference last week, Dr Nick Southgate, said that ‘shaping’ the world of consumers would be far more effective in trying to get people to make healthier food choices than trying to educate them on nutrition.

Southgate told FoodNavigator: “It’s a tricky thing where it leaves regulation but I think what people have to consider is that if you’re hoping you can just provide people with better information and educate them to make better choices, then you’ll be disappointed with the outcome. You’ll get some change but not nearly as much as you would have wanted.”

“Whereas if you start to shape the world so that it’s easier for people to make healthy decisions they will start to do it,” he said.

An easy life

He said that diet choices were not always processed on a conscious level. “We have to eat several times a day and we can’t be working that out like it’s solving a mathematical problem every time,” he said.

“We borrow our decisions – or the way I tend to put it we outsource it. So we just eat what’s normal, we eat what’s available, we eat what other people are eating, we eat what we know how to cook. So all of these are decisions not really made on a nutritional level.”

He said that the hope from public health officials may be that food choices are made on a conscious level, but in reality the vast majority of these decisions are made as a “second thought”.

Go with the flow

Picking up on thoughts by another speaker at the event, Professor James Hill, Southgate said that default healthy options could be worth consideration as it removed the choice for consumers who ultimately sought an easy shopping experience. Hill had mentioned food service initiatives in the US whereby customers were given the healthier option automatically unless they requested the unhealthier option which may be bigger or higher in salt, sugar or fat.

Southgate said this kind of technique could be effective as it was more of a “nudge” than a “shove” since it did not remove unhealthy options completely. Southgate told audiences that it would be more effective to “go with the flow of choices people make rather than trying to ‘correct’ their choices”.

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