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New decoding of food purchasing behaviours

You may consider yourself a healthy eater and assume that your self control and knowledge of nutrition has helped you develop good habits. But are you as healthy as you think? A new study out of Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, that found that many of the personal qualities commonly associated with healthy eating — education, interest in nutrition and even income level — don’t have as much impact on our food decisions as we tend to give them credit for.

Rather, the single most important factor is the price of what we’re eating.

“Prices, what we see in the marketplace, affects our shopping much more than we realise,” said Kusum Ailawadi, a marketing professor at the Tuck School of Business, who led the study.

“Even with all good intentions, with our concern for nutrition, when we see something that’s too expensive and we can’t afford it, we don’t buy it. When we see something on sale, we buy it, even though it may not be very good for us.

“This is more of a (call to) consumers to wake up and be even more conscious of what you buy.”

The finding has implications for food marketers and policy makers who are interested in lowering the rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other health problems growing throughout the United States that are influenced by nutrition.

In the study, Ailawadi and her colleagues went beyond what consumers said about their eating habits — after all, people lie about what they eat — and looked at their actual shopping patterns over several years. As expected, people with high self-control — those who exercise regularly and don’t eat much fast food — bought less junk food.

But they cancelled out many of the benefits from avoiding junk food because they consumed more of the items they believed to be healthy, such as yogurt and cereal, and thus took in more overall calories and sugar.

The study also examined the impact that a diagnosis of diabetes, which has strong links to obesity, has on food consumption. Sugar consumption for diabetic individuals decreased immediately after diagnosis. But those people also increased their fat and sodium intake.

For the most part, it didn’t matter if someone who was diagnosed with diabetes also had high self-control or knew a lot about nutrition; the impact of those factors remained the same.

“All common sense and conventional wisdom would say people with more education and who are more aware of nutrition and who have more self-control should make better changes after they are diagnosed with diabetes, and we didn’t find that,” Ailawadi said. “We found that education and self-control really didn’t matter.”

That is not to say “let’s just give up, because (education) doesn’t help anyway,” Ailawadi said. Indeed, it does help. But prices affect our decisions much more than we realise, she said, and both food marketers and policy makers need to take note.

“My advice to marketers, like it or not, people are going to have to get more careful about what they eat because disease is much more expensive to manage otherwise,” she said. “If you want to keep your consumer franchise and not lose them completely, then make better products, make healthier products.”

This will not be easy, she said. Food companies, of course, are concerned with selling products and making profits. Most food marketers believe that the segment of consumers that cares about health is small and less influenced by prices, Ailawadi said.

But price influences everyone, she said. And healthier options tend to cost more. The “less unhealthy” foods, such as low-sodium turkey, costs in some cases 50 percent more than the high-sodium, high-fat counterparts, a significant deterrent to choosing the better option, Ailawadi said….

Valley News: Read the full article

New research links key marketing factors to quality of food purchases

Breakthrough research by Kusum Ailawadi, professor of Marketing at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth, can change the way companies think about marketing their products to consumers and shows that, contrary to most current corporate marketing approaches, low-sugar products will be on the rise.

The study sends a key message to companies producing sugary food and drink products: there is a huge need to create healthier and more affordable products as an alternative diet. Additionally, the findings reinforce the idea of consumers evolving towards health conscious purchases as a whole.

The research also examines changes in food intake patterns in a household following the diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes in one of its members. Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease strongly linked with the expanding international epidemic of obesity.

In the past, researchers relied on diabetic patients’ self-reported records of eating habits and often led to skewed results. The method used by Kusum and her colleagues in collecting data for this study is a first in the industry. Using a scanner that tracks what people buy at the grocery store, they monitored purchases from 40 000 households during a four-year period before and after a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes.

Ailawadi’s findings hold importance for marketers, consumers, consumer researchers and public health professionals. Following are some of the key points of the study:

Three main correlations were identified in households subsequent to a diabetes diagnosis:

  • Purchases in sugar and carbohydrate products decreased, while purchases in fat (including processed fats) increased, which could potentially lead to other health issues.
  • Males showed lesser changes in purchasing choices (diet soda and diet juices) than females. Females had broader purchasing cuts across more categories.
  • Changes were broader in younger patients, regardless of gender.
  • The level of a household’s education, nutrition interest, and self-control do not seem to affect healthier changes after diabetes diagnosis

The “Health Halo Bias”

  • The study examined people with “high self-control,” as defined by healthy practices such as regular exercise and infrequent consumption of fast food or late-night snacks. The self-controllers bought less junk food like sugary cola and potato chips. Yet they offset this benefit with greater quantity of “healthy foods” like yogurt and cereal, leading to greater overall consumption of calories and sugar.
  • This paradox of consuming more because of a perception of healthy attributes is known as the “health halo bias.”

This study is the first time the “Health Halo Bias” has been proven on a wide scale (previously it has only been shown within a lab environment).

Source: Medical News Today

Journal Reference:

‘Soda versus Cereal and Sugar versus Fat: Drivers of Healthful Food Intake and the Impact of Diabetes Diagnosis,’ was published in the May 2013 issue of the Journal of Marketing.

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