Food policies can rely on different instruments to influence consumer's dietary choices. A most important distinction is between ‘push’ and ‘pull’ policy orientations, where the former starts with shaping conducive market- or governance-led food supply conditions, or 'pushing' out (using standards/certification, subsidies/taxes, innovative finance, for example), and the latter focuses on improving consumer demand for healthier foods, or 'pulling' in (with vouchers, information, distribution outlets) from vulnerable segments of the population.
This distinction leads to different strategies that can be used for pursuing healthier food choices. Two distinct strategic opportunities are:
It appears that, while many programs for improving diets tend to focus on the demand side, and provide targeted incentives to particular groups of consumers, research evidence suggests that connecting with the consumer through adjustments in the food environment may be more impactful and effective for supporting healthier food choices.
Food choices and nutritional outcomes are shaped by both supply and demand factors. There are major differences between these direct and indirect impact pathways:
Most research is oriented towards measuring the direct impact of prices, information, and market incentives for changing behavior regarding individual food choices, and identifies “nudging” strategies to influence the buying and eating behaviours of different categories of consumers. Evidence increasingly suggests, however, that peer groups and social norms strongly influence individual responses to incentives. Adjustments in the food environment appear to be particularly impactful for changing nutrition patterns. Little is known about the relative importance of and the possible interactions between these different pathways.
The design of effective food policies towards healthier diets requires good understanding of the challenges at hand. How consumers respond to direct or indirect incentives likely depends on four types of issues:
Considering these points, policymakers and researchers should note that combining individual incentives with supply-side restrictions may be a particularly effective strategy for steering consumers to choose healthier diets. The combined effect of messaging and incentives also appears with positive outcomes. Finally, combining positive incentives and negative restrictions has proven to be a particularly efficient and effective strategy for supporting healthier food choices.
Ruerd Ruben is Professor of Impact Assessment for Food Systems at Wageningen University & Research. He is a member of A4NH's Planning and Management Committee.
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