Cut fruit and vegetable prices in half and people will load
up on them, according to a new study that suggests price regulation may play an
important role in future public policy."Many people argue that we should
educate the population better about healthy eating - however our results
clearly show that that is not the direction to go," lead author Wilma
Price changes are really needed," said Waterlander, a
research fellow at the School of Population Health at the University of
Auckland in New Zealand. In past surveys, people indicated they would buy more
fruit if prices were lower, but there hadn't been rigorous supermarket tests to
confirm the idea.
How the study was
For the new test,
Waterlander and her colleagues randomly divided 151 Dutch supermarket shoppers
into four groups and gave each group half-off coupons (good for six months) for
fresh, canned and frozen produce; healthy cookbooks and phone consultations
with a dietitian; both coupons and nutrition advice or neither.
The researchers collected supermarket receipts before the
program began, one month into the discount period, three months in, at six
months (as the discounts expired) and three months after the program ended.
At the six-month point, households with coupons and
cookbooks bought about 12 pounds more produce for a two-week period than they
had before the study. People given only coupons bought almost nine pounds more.
The phone conversations and cookbooks, with "easy, tasty and cheap"
recipes using lots of fruits and vegetables, did not affect food purchases on
"I think it tells us that we know we need to do more than
just educate people," Glorian Sorensen, who studies the health impacts of
community interventions at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston,
Massachusetts, told Reuters Health.
With coupons, participants not only bought more fruit and
vegetables, but also ate more of them, based on responses to a questionnaire.
Sixty percent of participants ate the recommended daily amount of fruits and
vegetables at the end of the study, compared to 42% at the beginning, according
to findings published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The researchers were
pleased to see that people didn't use the money they saved to buy more food in
other areas of the store."This is crucial, especially in the light of
obesity prevention," Waterlander said.
Varying effects by
Price cuts would likely be most effective in countries where
produce is most expensive, like the Netherlands, Waterlander said. In that
country, an ongoing "supermarket war" has major chains competing for
customers by pricing popular items like beer at a loss, while keeping the
prices of fruits and vegetables high to compensate, she explained.
Produce prices are similarly high in much of Europe, Waterlander
added, whereas in the US, $20 billion in farm subsidies annually keep produce prices
relatively low. Only 14% of Americans get the recommended two fruits and three
vegetables per day, which provide essential vitamins, minerals and fiber and
may reduce the risk of cancer and chronic diseases, according to 2010 data from
the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"For people who are affluent, changing the price is
probably not going to make a big difference," Karen Glanz, who studies
community health and behavior at the University of Pennsylvania in
Philadelphia, told Reuters Health.
People affected by
obesity and diabetes
For people who are poorer and most affected by obesity and
diabetes, price is a big factor, said Glanz, who was not involved in the study.
Only about half of the farmers markets in the US accept food stamps, but that
number has been increasing lately, which could help make fresh produce more
available to low income families, Glanz notes.
But it will be a
while before major changes happen in supermarkets, which are still where
Americans get most of their food, she said. "It's profitable for the
bottom lines to promote the unhealthy options."More studies need to look
at long term effects on diet and determine how deep the discount needs to be
before it's implemented in policy, Sorensen said."It might seem obvious -
make it cheaper and people buy more - but it is not that simple,"