A new £2.2M (euro 2.5M) European research project aims to determine how governments across the EU can learn from the food industry how to sell healthier eating messages to consumers.
The three-and-a-half year Eatwell Framework 7 project - led by the University of Reading and involving various other private and public sector institutions across Europe, plus food manufacturer Kraft Foods - will catalogue what the private sector has done to evaluate what has worked well and why. The project involves professor Klaus Grunert of the University of Aarhus in Denmark, who is also involved in separate research into the labelling of foods.
Across the EU, Member State policy initiatives aimed at improving diet and reducing related preventative diseases have, in the past, had mixed results. Consequently, Eatwell will investigate how the public sector can effectively market promising dietary interventions to the population, and what attitudinal barriers may be faced in different countries. The results of the research will be presented to Member States and the European Commission as the study progresses.
Dr Bhavani Shankar, senior lecturer in applied economics at the University of Reading’s School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, said: “It is easy to be dismissive of state interference in determining dietary choice. Indeed, the nanny state specifying what one should eat can conjure up Orwellian visions.”
However, he added: “It is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a clear rationale for further government involvement in food choice. Obesity, driven partly by food choice, now accounts for between 5 and 7% of total health care costs in the EU. In addition to its contribution via obesity, poor dietary quality directly contributes to a range of preventable diseases that raise health care costs.”
Shankar continued: “The public sector hasn’t traditionally been all that good at promoting social marketing messages and there is a lot they have to learn from the private sector that does it rather effectively.”
The idea is to examine food industry marketing campaigns - especially those with a health element, said Shankar, and see what marketing action was taken; what resources were deployed and how well they succeeded; and what really drove that success, and “take lessons from that”. The research will provide case studies in four different areas: healthier new product introductions; new communication measures on food labels, claims and health branding; ‘cause marketing’ - basically a marketing campaign with a public health message; and product reformulation to improve the nutritional profile.
Obesity has been estimated to cost the EU around euro 70bn a year through health care costs and lost productivity. Over-consumption of salt, sugar and saturated fats and under-consumption of fruit and vegetables are said to cause almost 70,000 premature deaths annually in the UK alone.
Professor Bruce Traill, professor of food economics at the University of Reading, said: “In the case of the UK, for example, people making poor dietary choices makes the NHS more expensive for everybody. So, quite apart from trying to save lives by encouraging healthier eating, some government intervention in this arena is in the social interest.
“Our research will examine the range of policy interventions that have been carried out in EU countries and elsewhere in the past. We are particularly interested in examining how the private sector’s marketing expertise could be effectively adopted by public sector healthy eating campaigns.”