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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 17:21 EDT

Healthier Foods With Lower Prices?

February 4, 2010

The high price of fresh, whole foods has long been the excuse for unhealthy eating habits, but a new study found that reducing the price of such foods could result in continued purchasing of them even after the discounts are taken away.

“Traditionally there has been a reliance on nutrition education to promote healthier diets,” lead researcher of the study Dr. Cliona Ni Mhurchu of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, told Reuters Health by email.

“These results highlight the importance of adding regulatory interventions to the mix rather than relying too heavily on personal responsibility.”

Obesity rates are still on the rise in much of the developed world, making it vital to improve healthy eating habits. Ni Mhurchu and her team conducted a six-month trial in eight New Zealand supermarkets to see the effect of price discounts and nutrition education.

The study involved 1,104 randomly selected shoppers that received a discount on healthy foods, nutrition education, a combination of the two, or no intervention at all.

Those who were randomized to receive discounts were able to buy healthy foods for 12.5% less. Participants getting nutrition education received monthly packages of food-group-specific information specifically designed for them according to their shopping history. Their purchases were recorded by using handheld barcode scanners.

An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition report stated that six months after intervention, participants receiving reduced prices purchased approximately 1.7 more pounds of healthy food each week compared with those not randomized to pay the lower prices.

This was an 11 percent increase from purchases made before the study, and it included just over a pound more fruits and vegetables per week, which amounts to about six servings. Though the total difference was down to around 0.8 pounds, it was still significant six months after the study ended. There were no consistent differences found between the groups in terms of the amounts of purchased saturated fat or other nutrients.

Ni Mhurchu said she was surprised by the fact that nutrition education did not improve food choices, especially since previous research had shown positive effects. However, the majority of those studies relied on self-report rather than the objective supermarket sales data. Her study participants were typically more informed and interested in healthy eating than the average person, which could have made the impact of the education less apparent, she said.

“The price reductions may have provided an additional incentive over and above health to buy healthier foods,” explained Ni Mhurchu. Even if the reductions had no effect on the quantity of unhealthy foods purchased, nearly two-thirds of the additional healthy purchases were fruit and vegetables, low caloric foods that Ni Mhurchu believes people need more of.

“We believe that regulatory options to reduce the price of healthy foods have an important role to play and deserve more consideration,” said Ni Mhurchu, while mentioning that the price reduction is similar to what would happen if the taxes on healthy foods were lifted.

“Other pricing options to improve diets include subsidies on healthier foods, subsidies targeted to low-income populations, or working more closely with the food industry to produce cheaper healthy foods,” the researcher noted.

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