Helping with healthier choices

by Josh Sosland
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WASHINGTON — A number of ways to "nudge" young students to make better eating choices without banning snack foods and other "competitive foods" from schools hold considerable potential, according to analysis published in the latest issue of Amber Waves, a publication of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

"Skillful application of behavioral economic theory may be able to help school children make healthier food choices," said Lisa Mancino and Joanne Guthrie in the article, "When nudging in the lunch line might be a good thing."

Ms. Mancino is a U.S.D.A. researcher and Ms. Guthrie is assistant deputy director for nutrition in the Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Program.

"With skillful application of choice architecture, students’ freedom of choice can be preserved while they are steered toward selections more in their long-term interest," the authors said.

Examples of how this theory might be applied include adjustments to how food is placed, diminishing the stress under which food selections are made or the thoughtful use of verbal cues that may encourage healthier choices, they said.

The stakes for effecting change are quite high. Each school day 30 million children and teenagers eat a U.S.D.A.-sponsored school lunch and nearly 10 million eat a U.S.D.A.-sponsored school breakfast. Many health advocates are anxious to see schools take advantage of this opportunity, particularly in view of rising child obesity rates.

The Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S.D.A., which regulates the school meal program, has worked to make the meals healthier, adding whole grains, fruits and vegetables and low-fat milk while cutting back on sodium, saturated fat and trans fatty acid. In recent years, schools have been required to develop wellness programs.

Still, most schools also serve less nutritious foods and beverages in addition to U.S.D.A. meals.

Ms. Mancino and Ms. Guthrie noted pressure from health advocates to ban less nutritious competitive foods. These advocates contend children are too immature to understand the long-term consequences of their choices.

"However, some schools and parents oppose such bans, either for school budgetary reasons or because they believe students are entitled to have food choices, and in the larger world, will eventually have to learn to make such choices on their own," they said.

A range of factors contribute to the decisions adults make when choosing between food options. For example, marketing research has demonstrated that items displayed more prominently, at eye level or first in line, tend to be selected more often than other items, they said.

Other factors that may contribute to impulsive decisions biased toward short-term goals include feeling hungry, stressed or distracted.

"It is possible that noise levels, crowding and long cafeteria lines may work against rational decision making about food choices," they said.

A large proportion of school principals and students have identified cafeteria noise, lack of seating and long lines as problems.

"On average, students spent close to 5 minutes of the 30-minute lunch period waiting in line," Ms. Mancino and Ms. Guthrie said. "Positive decision cues, such as smartly packaged healthy ‘grab-and-go’ portions may help time pressed, hungry and distracted students make better food choices."

Turning to verbal cues, the authors said the power of suggestion is familiar to anyone who has spontaneously agreed to supersize a meal or order a decadent dessert. That said, prompts also may help encourage healthier eating. They cited research indicating fruit consumption was 75% higher when customers were asked by cafeteria workers whether they would like fruit or fruit juice.

A widely documented "anomaly" in behavioral studies is a greater willingness to make future sacrifices rather than immediate ones.

"People are less willing to limit salt, calories and fat for better future health if they are considering these sacrifices on the spot rather than for a future meal or snack," Ms. Mancino and Ms. Guthrie said.

Based on this tendency, they suggested that pre-committing to a choice (without on-the-spot distractions or the promise of immediate gratification) may help people act on their intentions.

"Allowing students (or for younger children, their parents) to select healthy meal options ahead of time also may help reduce purchases of less nutritious foods in the cafeteria," the authors said.

While the application of well-demonstrated economic principles to school cafeteria lines is promising, the successful transfer of these ideas to children is not a "sure thing," they said.

"Knowledge of how to successfully apply behavioral economic theory to school cafeteria settings is still in its ‘kindergarten’ stage," Ms. Mancino and Ms. Guthrie said.

"Clearly, more piloting in real world cafeteria situations with school-age children is needed before behavioral economics can graduate to being a source of recommended practices," they said. "However, these strategies offer a new set of potential options for improving choices within school cafeterias."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, March 3, 2009, starting on Page 17. Click here to search that archive.

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