In discussions of getting people to eat more produce and whole grains, price often comes up as a barrier. Rand Corp. research released Tuesday shows that offering discounts on healthful foods increases the amounts people eat – and it appears also to reduce how much foods such as cookies and chips they eat too.
The researchers looked at a program in South Africa that since 2009 has provided rebates of 10% or 25% to members of Discovery Health, the country’s largest private health insurance company. The program has 800 supermarkets and 260,000 households taking part.
“These findings offer good evidence that lowering the cost of nutritionally preferable foods can motivate people to significantly improve their diet,” Roland Sturm, a study co-author and a senior economist at the nonprofit research organization Rand, said in a statement. “But behavior changes are proportional to price changes. When there is a large gap between people’s actual eating behaviors and what nutritionists recommend, even a 25% price change closes just a small fraction of that gap.”
The Rand study said interest is growing in food discount programs as motivators to improve diet. Nutrient-rich foods have become more expensive, compared with calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods, and some speculate that this contributes to obesity, the researchers noted. The U.S. Congress funded a demonstration discount project that took place last year in Massachusetts; results are being analyzed.