When Healthy Food Is Cheap, People Eat More Of It

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Americans are pretty good at knowing what they should and shouldn´t eat. One would be hard pressed to find someone who looks at a cheeseburger and sees a healthy meal. Yet there exists a significant gap between what we know we should eat and what we choose when meal time comes around. One of the most common excuses for not eating a healthier diet is the high cost of organic foods, produce and other natural foods.

In South Africa, however, grocery store shoppers can earn a rebate for choosing better foods, bringing the overall cost of a healthier diet to a more comfortable level. Now, the RAND Corporation has analyzed the results of this program and claims when the price is right, people will choose a healthier option. This provides an interesting data point to an ongoing debate about similar programs being implemented in the US.

South Africa´s largest private insurance company, Discovery, first rolled out the “HealthyFood” program in 2009. Under this program, all Discovery insurance subscribers can earn up to 25 percent cash back on all healthy food purchases. Family members from more than 260,000 South African households can shop at nearly 800 participating supermarkets to take advantage of this program.

A panel of nutritionists has determined which items can be considered “healthy” and can therefore earn shoppers a discount on their bill. There are currently over 6,000 items eligible for a rebate through the HealthyFood program. According to a press release, these items account for 20 percent of an average shopper´s food bill.

The RAND team gathered data from the HealthyFood participating supermarkets and surveyed 350,000 South Africans, including those who did not take advantage of HealthyFood. After analyzing the data using several different techniques, the RAND Corporation found lower prices for healthier food were associated with a better diet.

“These findings offer good evidence that lowering the cost of nutritionally preferable foods can motivate people to significantly improve their diet,” explained Roland Sturm, co-author of this study and senior economist at RAND.

“But behavior changes are proportional to price changes. When there is a large gap between people´s actual eating behaviors and what nutritionists recommend, even a 25 percent price change closes just a small fraction of that gap.”

Specifically, the supermarket data reveals that a 25 percent discount can increase the amount of healthy food a shopper purchases by 9.3 percent. When given the same 25 percent rebate, shoppers bought 8.5 percent more fruits and veggies than before and purchased 7.2 percent less of the bad stuff.

HealthyFood shoppers are given rebates on fruits, vegetables, nonfat dairy and foods which are rich in whole grains. This 25-percent rebate has encouraged these shoppers to choose less of the unhealthy foods, such as sugary foods, foods with high salt content, fast food items and processed meat. The RAND study also notes during the course of the study, the price subsidies remained stable and the health effects remained positive.

The RAND team also asked participants to complete self-surveys about their diets. According to these surveys, HealthyFood shoppers ate half a serving more of fruits and vegetables each day than those who were not a part of the program. HealthyFood shoppers were also less likely to eat fast food or any of the other items listed as unhealthy.

Even this small change in eating habits had a significant effect on the participants´ overall health. According to the study, HealthyFood members began to lose weight, thus reducing the number of obese subscribers to Discovery´s insurance plans.