HealthyFood Programme

Study: Discovery’s HealthyFood programme is changing dietary habits

The best public health stratagems are often the least overt ones, as proven by NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s doomed-to-failure bid to ban super-sized soda in the US megalopolis. By contrast, here at home, the four-year old HealthyFood campaign by Discovery, the country’s largest health insurer, demonstrates that consumers who are given rebates on fruits, vegetables, and other nutritionist-approved foods quickly change their dietary habits. Healthful eating, it appears, just makes good cents.

The HealthyFood programme offers its beneficiaries a 10 to 25 percent rebate on produce and other smart selections — some 6 000 items total, including canned veggies and non-fat dairy products — at the 400 or so Pick n Pay supermarkets around the country.

Using scanner data, researchers from the Rand Corporation were able to track the grocery purchases of 169 000 Discovery clients, 100 000 of whom were enrolled in HealthyFood; the remaining 69 000 were not.

Published online this week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, the results show that among HealthyFood enrollees receiving a 10 percent rebate for good supermarket behaviour, the ratio of healthful food to total food purchased increased 6 percent, while the ratio of unhealthful food —  products high in trans fats, sugar, salt, and refined starches — decreased by nearly the same amount.

When the rebate was bumped to 25 percent, customers bought even more fruits and vegetables; their healthful expenditures increased close to 10 percent, while their unhealthful expenditures fell 7 percent.

The study concludes:

“Although the HealthyFood program is timely in addressing a topical worldwide policy question, its generalizability to other populations remains uncertain. The program is unique due to its size and geographic scope and because it is the only large price intervention led by the private sector on an ongoing basis. That factor makes the current study novel and interesting but also contributes to its limitations by weakening the study design.

“Nevertheless, this study serves as an important data point in the ongoing effort to quantify the influence of prices on dietary behaviors. The results from this rebate program suggest that reducing the costs of healthy food purchases is likely to change purchasing patterns in a meaningful way. However, it is not a cheap way to achieve major changes in population diets. Changes in purchases are commensurate with price changes, but even a large price change for healthy foods (eg, 25%) can at best address a small part of the discrepancy between population dietary patterns and dietary guidelines.”

Journal reference:

A Cash-Back Rebate Program for Healthy Food Purchases in South Africa: Results from Scanner Data

Roland Sturm, PhD, Ruopeng An, MPP, MPhil, Darren Segal, BSc, Deepak Patel, MD, MPhil

Am J Prev Med 2013;xx(x):xxx

Download the study here