Would changing food pricing and marketing really make a difference?

There was a report published that suggested that the price of healthy food is one of the strongest factors in determining whether people will buy it or not:


A recent Forbes article leapt on this report and had the tagline, “Today’s food marketing is making us fat, but it doesn’t have to” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/insead/2012/11/20/can-food-marketers-not-make-us-fat/) and lists four great ways to help food marketers promote fresh food:

1 – bring down the price of healthy food to make it easily available to everyone.  Nobody will have an excuse not to buy it if it’s cheaper than one of those microwave burgers, unless…

2 – drop the word “healthy” from fresh food advertising to stop the association of “healthy food” with “disgusting-tasting food” and use words like “natural taste”, or tap into the Green Living notion of “sustainable production”.

Darren Hayes summed it up when he sang that “junk food tastes so good because it’s bad for you” (“Affirmation”, Savage Garden…but enough about my taste in cheesy pop music) – the inverse is that healthy food tastes so bad because it’s good for you, like medicine, and this has unfortunately been drummed into the psyche of a lot of people, probably from being force-fed cabbage that has been boiled for 40 minutes and tastes sulphuric with equally sulphuric results an hour later down the other end.

I’ll stop it right there.

3 – make the healthier options tasty and get the sizes right.  Again, even the so-called “healthy ready-meals” have something distinctly lacking in flavour, texture and generally makes the whole eating experience a let-down.  Why can’t the food scientists who generate those meals take umami into account?  We all know why Italian food tastes amazing: it’s the umami, that indistinguishable savoury flavour in the background that resonates through the dish (see more in my previous post “Going Umami For Food” http://everybodyshomefordinner.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/going-umami-for-food/).

And sizing – restaurateurs in this article are encouraged to make the restaurant portions sizes smaller so that people can actually finish the dishes without anything going to waste.  That’d be really satisfying to me, to finish a whole plate of food at a restaurant without worrying about leaving some that I couldn’t finish or eating the whole lot and realising that I can’t move for the next 20 minutes.  Also food packaging – reduce the size and raise the costs of unhealthier options – it makes food really appear like a small treat to have if it’s smaller rather than a staple, such as when you buy a tiny slice of vanilla cheesecake that you know costs half as much as a full-sized one, but you don’t want to feel guilty or sick for buying and eating a whole cheesecake to yourself, so you might opt for the slice and pay less for it than a whole cake.

Resist these.  I dare you.

Resist these. I dare you.

I say “might”…

4 – make healthier food more visible and more accessible, and the implication is to make the unhealthier foods less visible and less accessible.  Simples.

One particular line from the actual report that caught my eye was that they found that a 12.5% temporary price discount on healthier foods increased the purchase volume of these foods by 11% among the low-income consumers who received the coupons; however, the discounts on healthy food did not reduce purchases of unhealthy food.

That actually makes sense when you think about it: you already know what foods are healthier for you, but if it’s expensive and you can get something else that fills you up in the same way as healthier food but for cheaper, you are probably more likely to go for that option if money is tight.  Yet, when the supermarkets do a deal on the vegetables and/or fruits, for example, a “3 for 2” deal, and they’ve lowered the price of those items as well, you’re more likely to buy it.  It also does not necessarily mean that you’re going to stop buying a cake on top of all this – you still want that cake.  I know I do:

Come over to the dark side.  We have cupcakes...

Come over to the dark side. We have cupcakes…

All of this supports the argument that, if a government wants the population to eat more healthily, the price of healthier foods must come right down.

What the report and the Forbes article neglect to think about is this:

Even if you’ve “done the good thing” and bought the healthier food, how much of it will actually be eaten?

It’s all very well buying in all that amazing fresh food, but they unfortunately are perishable.

A recent Reuters report found that Americans threw away some 50% of the food they bought, a significant part of it being unsold fruit and vegetables that went off after not being bought (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/21/us-food-waste-idUSBRE87K0WR20120821).

In the UK, the average family throws away approximately £270 of food per year, with fruit, vegetables and bread being the main foods being wasted.  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/may/16/uk-families-waste-discarded-food) Interestingly, it highlighted that the main reasons for wasting the food were the “Buy One Get One Free” supermarket deals, although it does not clearly state that it was these offers on fruit and vegetables that caused them to be thrown away.  I shudder myself at how often we’ve bought the salad side in a meal offer instead of the garlic bread, trying to be “good people”, and then finding that nobody’s eaten it and it’s gone off at the back of the fridge.

I believe that the problem goes back to the concept of convenience in today’s world.  I’ve said it before (http://everybodyshomefordinner.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/convenience-food-is-here-to-stay/) and I’ll say it again.  The problem that comes with buying fresh fruit and vegetables is that they are perishable, they have to be prepared or eaten within a couple of days at most.  Preparation takes time.  How many people have the time to prepare fruit and vegetables when you could buy it ready-made for a small amount extra and still get the time to catch the latest TV show?

Or let’s look at it another way – how many people are prepared to take the time necessary to prepare them when they could be doing other things, like relaxing; like spending time with their loved ones they haven’t seen all day; like just trying to hold everything together, and they’ve just had enough and want to sink into the sofa with a bottle of pinot and hide?

I think that the biggest problem we have is that we’ve got so many competing expectations on us that we’re all being shamed into one way or another, and it’s impossible to win and feel good about it.  We all know we have to eat healthily to live a long, happy and healthy life.  We also have to do it frugally in these harsher economic times which, if you’re buying fresh fruit and vegetables, means buying the whole avocado un-stoned, un-peeled and making the time to do this along with preparing the rest of the salad and mains, if it’s going to be a side-salad.  We don’t have much time to do this in-between the 1 hour commute one way in a car or train or jammed into someone’s armpits on the Tube to be stuffed into a cubicle for the next 8 hours and then doing the reverse to get back home some 13 hours after you first woke up, and if you have kids as well to take care of…well, it just makes the situation even more complicated, and you’ve gotta do this at least 5 days a week and you’re exhausted.

What none of these data analysts, experts, celebrity chefs and policy-makers realise is this:

Without food being the big passion in the mother’s or father’s life of a family, very few people today will make the time needed to prepare the food from scratch and comply with the “being healthy/fit/frugal/efficient/not-wasteful/mechanically happy” mould.  When we don’t comply with that mould, we feel like crap.  This is an “ideal stick” to birch us with, not a carrot.

So, what can we do?

I know I do aspire to that “ideal stick” in some ways – I want to be healthy, frugal and to try not to waste too much if I can help it, and I want to provide for my family.  Maybe it’s the same for you too.

I imagine that you are here reading this because you like food, so maybe the best thing is to do what you can and want to do, and to ignore what the media or the Joneses are doing.

Much easier said than done, I know!  Having these amazing über-Frau relatives makes me feel ashamed when I come home and can’t muster the will or strength to cook when I know that they definitely would.

Thankfully, this is a world where you can choose not to cook from scratch every day if you just don’t have the time or inclination to do so – there are ready meals, restaurants and take-out/delivery places that can help you get over the hill when it gets too bad.  Better food marketing will help to persuade us to eat more healthily, and bringing down the price of fresh food will also help with that a lot.

Then, all that’s needed is the desire to spend some time clearing out the mind and invigorating the senses – ultimately, that’s what cooking seems to do.

Take care of yourself first and the rest will follow.



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