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Blanket policies to discourage indulgent foods don’t work, study finds

Dive Brief:

  • Consumption patterns for different categories of indulgent foods are not alike, so across-the-board policies to discourage purchases — including checkout line bans — are unlikely to work well, according to a new study from Business for Impact at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
  • Obese consumers are much more likely to purchase soda and packaged baked goods, statistics from a Hudson Institute study showed in the report. But purchase rates of chocolate and non-chocolate candy are about the same for consumers who pay close attention to healthy eating and those who do not.
  • As research continues to tie unhealthy diets to undesirable health outcomes, policymakers have considered a variety of initiatives to encourage healthy eating, including front-of-pack labeling, rearranging stores to make indulgent products less prominent and adding extra taxes. This study shows more targeted initiatives for different types of products may be more effective.  

Dive Insight:

There are many food and beverage options out there that are not healthy, but the way consumers look at and use them is extremely different. 

Sugar-sweetened beverages often bear the brunt of policies intended to discourage consumption, but many studies have found they pose the biggest problem.

While health-minded consumers rarely purchase sodas and sweetened fruit drinks, these beverages are responsible for 41.4% of added sugars people consume, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited in the Georgetown report. IRI data revealed by the university found more than a third of consumers purchase soft drinks at least a few times a week, and close to seven in 10 buy them a few times a month.

Chocolate candy, on the other hand, was purchased on about 14% of shopping trips, and non-chocolate candy was bought about 10% of the time. The CDC data estimated confections only account for 6.6% of added sugars people eat, and contribute less than 2% of average consumers’ caloric intake.

At a presentation about the findings at Georgetown University last week, Hank Cardello, executive director for leadership solutions for health and prosperity at Business for Impact, said different segments of the food business are working to present healthier options to consumers.

Several of the largest confectioners, in partnership with the National Confectioners Association and Partnership for a Healthier America, pledged five years ago to make half of their individually wrapped candies available for 200 calories or less. They met this goal earlier this year. 

Anton Vincent, president of Mars Wrigley North America, said at last week’s event the company has had a holistic strategy to make its offerings healthier. This is reflected not only in some of its recent acquisitions — including Kind and Nature’s Bakery — but in the way the company looks at its portfolio, Vincent said.

Mars has committed to trying to get all of its products to be fewer than 200 calories per serving. It also is working with the World Health Organization’s goal of limiting sugars to less than 10% of an average person’s daily caloric intake.

Other segments are working toward healthier products, both through sugar reduction and smaller product sizes. Top soda makers, through the American Beverage Association, are working on cutting sugary drink calories by 20% between 2015 and 2025. And through Partnership for a Healthier America’s Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, CPG companies were able to remove 1.5 trillion calories from food offerings by 2015.

But work still needs to be done on reducing portion sizes and ensuring the food people are eating is nutritious enough, said last week’s panelist Dr. Bill Dietz from George Washington University. And food companies may be in the best position to do that. After all, researchers have found policies targeting one problematic food segment, like taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, are often ineffective

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