How convenience reduced less healthy food consumption by 28%
“Convenience” and “taste” are two strong determinants of food choice. Unfortunately, it's the less healthy food that tends to be more convenient, resulting in people forgoing the benefits of healthier options.
This intervention tested whether healthy eating habits can be encouraged by making healthy food options more convenient than less healthy ones. They introduced a convenience line at a school cafeteria that only sold healthy food options and flavored milk. The convenience line nudged students to select 19% more healthier food options and reduced consumption of less healthy food by 28%. The results also suggest that students substituted less healthy food with flavored milk.
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Rating: 4/5 (doesn’t track long-term effects; some findings are not fully explored)
How a convenience line for healthy food altered food choice
|Without convenience line||Consumption of less healthy food: 182g / student
Consumption of flavored milk: 190g / student
|With convenience line||Consumption of less healthy food: 131g / student (28% less)
Consumption of flavored milk: 210g / student (11% more)
Present-biased preferences: the tendency to place greater value on smaller immediate rewards than waiting for a larger reward in the future.
Nudge: adjusting the environment to shape people’s behavior in a predictable way without changing incentives or available options.
Less healthy food is more convenient
Despite public awareness of the health risks associated with fast food, its consumption continues to be highly prevalent.¹ Present-biased preferences may provide one explanation for why we still opt for less healthy options. Fast food is carefully designed by sensory scientists to be immediately comforting, whereas healthy food options are generally not as palatable or convenient. In line with present-biased preferences, we value the convenience of fast food more than larger long-term benefits of healthy food. The association between less healthy food and convenience is so strong that despite healthy options now being available in fast food restaurants, less healthy food options are still associated with being more convenient.
And it leads to childhood obesity
The convenience associated with less healthy food is especially problematic from a public health perspective. Childhood obesity rates have been increasing progressively and furthermore have been exacerbated due to COVID-19.² One in five children and adolescents in the US now classify as obese, correlated with serious long-term consequences on their health and quality of life.³ As children are very susceptible to being influenced by their environment, understanding the external factors that influence their eating behavior is essential for improving their health.
Making healthy food more convenient
To make healthy food more convenient, the intervention converted one of two lunch lines at a public high school cafeteria into a convenience line for healthy food.
- Convenience line: only sold healthier food options and flavored milk.
- Normal line: sold all food options and flavored milk.
The experiment lasted 16 weeks, where the first eight weeks were a control period without a convenience line, and the last eight weeks an intervention period with a convenience line. Consumption data was collected twice during each period. 602 observations were collected before introduction of a convenience line, and 482 observations were collected after.
To get an accurate measure of consumption, each food item offered was pre-weighed and compared to the weight of the leftovers on each individual tray after each meal. Students who participated also filled out a card about lunch items they chose.
The EAST framework
The intervention tries to reduce the amount of less healthy food consumed by making healthy food options more convenient, using the EAST Framework. The framework suggests that policies can be optimized by making them Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. Making a policy easy mandates that the preferred decision should be easier to choose. By introducing a convenience line for healthy food, they make it easier for students to get healthy food than less healthy food.
Results and Application
28% decrease in the consumption of less healthy food
The overall consumption of less healthy food decreased by 28% after a convenience line for healthy food was introduced. The amount of healthy foods actually consumed did not increase, but the number of healthier foods chosen per student increased by 19%. This suggests that the convenience line nudged students to select more healthy food, but their preferences limited how much of it they ate.
Flavored milk substituted less healthy food
The quantity of flavored milk consumed increased by 11%, and the ratio of flavored milk to healthy food consumed decreased by 14%. These results along with the decrease in consumption of less healthy food indicate that students likely substituted less healthy food with flavored milk. While flavored milk is not exactly a healthy food, it is relatively more nutritious and less calorie dense than the alternative options, like soft drinks or sugary desserts.
|Climate & Energy||Similar to the tradeoff between health and convenience, cheaper and more convenient products are often chosen over sustainable ones.⁴ The demand for sustainable products could be increased by making it more convenient to purchase them.|
|Health & Wellbeing||Increasing the convenience of getting healthy foods can promote healthier eating habits in hospitals, office buildings and other locations with food services.|
|Retail & Consumer||52% of purchases are influenced by convenience and people are willing to pay to make routine purchases more convenient.⁵ Retailers can thus significantly increase their sales by making the purchasing process more convenient.|
- Provides a low-cost intervention for promoting healthier eating habits.
- Provides novel insights to how convenience affects consumption of food types in school cafeterias.
- Does not explore the long term behavioral effects of the intervention.
|Does the intervention demonstrably improve the lives of those affected by it?||
|Encouraging healthy eating habits in children has long-term health benefits.|
|Does the intervention respect the privacy (including the privacy of identity) of those it affects?||
|None of the students nor the school were identified in the report.|
|Does the intervention have a plan to monitor the safety, effectiveness, and validity of the intervention?||
Room for Improvement
|Students’ safety wasn’t threatened during the intervention, but no plan to monitor future effectiveness and validity.|
|Does the intervention abide by a reasonable degree of consent?||
|The process of obtaining consent was not mentioned.|
|Does the intervention respect the ability of those it affects to make their own decisions?||
|Students were free to decide which food items to get.|
|Does the intervention increase the number of choices available to those it affects?||
|The intervention provides students an additional option to select sandwich ingredients in the healthy food line.|
|Does the intervention acknowledge the perspectives, interests, and preferences of everyone it affects, including traditionally marginalized groups?||
|The intervention doesn’t mention participant or marginalized group preferences being factored in.|
|Are the participants diverse?||
|No information of participant diversity.|
|Does the intervention help ensure a just, equitable distribution of welfare?||
|The long-term health benefits of eating healthy food could result in a more just distribution of public health services.|
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- Hanks, A. S., Just, D. R., Smith, L. E., & Wansink, B. (2012). Healthy convenience: Nudging students toward healthier choices in the lunchroom. Journal of Public Health, 34(3), 370-376. https://doi.org/10.1093/pubmed/fds003
- Lange, S. J., Kompaniyets, L., Freedman, D. S., Kraus, E. M., Porter, R., Blanck, H. M., & Goodman, A. B. (2021). Longitudinal trends in body mass index before and during the COVID-19 pandemic among persons aged 2–19 years — United States, 2018–2020. MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 70(37), 1278-1283. https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7037a3
- Childhood obesity facts. (2021, April 5). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html
- Getty Images. (2020, February 25). Landmark research from Getty images reveals people care most about wellness of family, self and the earth but shows gap between intention and action. https://press.gettyimages.com/landmark-research-from-getty-images-reveals-people-care-most-about-wellness-of-family-self-and-the-earth-but-shows-gap-between-intention-and-action/
- National Retail Federation. (2020, January 14). Consumer view winter 2020. NRF. https://nrf.com/research/consumer-view-winter-2020