The World Congress on Public Health and Nutrition takes place in London across the 25th and 26th of April. Among the topics to be discussed are nutrition and obesity. While there are many factors that contribute to weight gain, our food choices are central to our overall health. Here Iina Ikonen considers the role of marketing for encouraging people to eat healthier foods.
Despite the increasing focus on the importance of a healthy diet and active lifestyle, obesity rates continue to grow across the globe. In fact, they have almost tripled since 1975. While the reasons behind this are complex, food marketing has come under fire for their role in growing waistlines.
This is not without reason. For example growing portion sizes, a tendency to offer discounts on unhealthy rather than healthy foods and more advertising of junk foods over healthier options are related to marketing decisions and have been linked to increased calorie consumption. Given this, it’s easy to see why, despite increasing regulation aimed at improving dietary patterns, the rates of obesity are persistently increasing.
Do nutrition labels work?
Many governments and companies have started taking action to promote healthier diets. For example, food packaging now carries mandatory nutrition labels on the packaging. Increasingly consumers can also find a summary of the key nutrients on the front of the package to make the process of comparing nutrition values easier and faster. In our research, which summarised the findings of 130 academic studies through a meta-analysis, we found that such labels are helpful for consumers looking to identify the healthiest option.
However, what’s often forgotten is that consumers’ food choices are not only driven by health considerations, but also by tastiness, price, quality and convenience among others. Not to mention that we also found the effect of front-of-package labels was much more limited in actually changing what foods people chose, despite their usefulness in helping consumers identify healthier options. To make matters worse, a broad scale field study in France found that the effect of front-of-pack labels on food choice was 17 times smaller in an actual supermarket setting than in the average laboratory study.
Interestingly, the UK recently introduced laws mandating larger restaurant chains to add calorie information on their menus. This is an important step as over 40% of people in the UK report eating out once or twice a week. Eating outside of the home has been linked to a higher intake of energy, which can at least partly be attributed to a difficulty understanding the nutritional content of restaurant foods. At the same time, the new policy has been criticised for potentially creating an unhealthy focus on calories. In fact, the evidence from other markets that already include calorie labels on menus shows the impact on average calorie consumption to be limited. In the UK, the impact of this remains to be seen, but for many eating out is a special occasion or a treat where health considerations may play a smaller role than this policy assumes.
Using marketing tactics for good
So what should we do, if strategies to improve consumers’ access to information are not effective enough to battle the obesity pandemic? An important longer-term solution is to find ways to increase consumers’ focus on health. For those actively looking to consume fewer calories and follow a more nutritious diet, providing nutrition information is crucial and makes decision-making easier. However, recognising that this is still not the driving factor behind most people’s food choices, means acknowledging the need to find other ways to promote healthier foods beyond highlighting how good they are for you.
While marketing tactics may have played a role in promoting unhealthy diets, they can also be harnessed for the greater good and used to make healthier foods more attractive to consumers. One way to do so is to utilise the same tactics that have been used to promote junk food to encourage people to opt for healthier foods, too. Healthy foods are not only good for you; they can also be tasty, affordable and convenient, and focusing on these aspects may make them more appealing to consumers balancing the many goals while shopping. In one study, labels which emphasised taste increased vegetable intake by 29% compared to health-focused labels. Healthier food options are also often wrapped in pale-coloured packaging. However, to consumers this signals not only healthiness but a potentially bland flavour. Junk food advertisements are great in giving the viewer a sense of how it feels to eat the flavourful burger: using bright colours, showing others enjoying the food and making the food look exceptionally attractive, while healthy food ads – if you happen to come across one – are rarely as enticing.
Marketing has the tools to not only inform consumers about the nutritional facts, but to show consumers that healthy food is full of flavour, and exciting too. We just need to use these tools to create an exciting, appealing consumer experience at each contact point with the brand – and perhaps let healthiness simply be the happy by-product.