Barely a day goes by where the effects and consequences of the changing climate are not mentioned by the media. You would be remiss not to have noticed the ongoing conversation about the impact of the food we eat on the health of the planet, as well on our own health.

Food production is a major contributor to the destruction of land, depletion of freshwater resources and damage caused to ecosystems through the excessive use of fertilizers. Reports and studies suggest that the Western diet is not sustainable at the current rate of economic and population growth and it is well established that a change in our diets would reduce the environmental impacts of food production (see EAT-Lancet, Helms and the IPCC. These sustainable diet changes include reducing our intake of red meat, reducing our intake of dairy, adopting a flexitarian-based diet and increasing the amount of vegetables and pulses that we already consume. An added benefit to consuming foods that have a low environmental impact is that they are generally better for individual health as well as putting less pressure on the earth’s natural resources.

Consumers in the United Kingdom, whether they know it or not, are being ‘nudged’ into making healthier food choices every day. Some recent changes that you may have noticed – the removal of chocolate bars from supermarket checkouts, or the introduction of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – are a result of the application of a particular type of behavioural economics, better known as nudge theory. But does this approach, which has been used so often in public health matters, have the potential to encourage British consumers into making sustainable dietary choices too?


Nudging me, nudging you

Nudge theory was brought to prominence by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in the late 2000s and it has been widely embraced by both the private and public sectors. But what exactly is it? Simply put, nudge theory acknowledges that the human brain makes automatic decisions and it proposes that the behaviour of an individual can be influenced by altering the environment in which the brain makes these choices.

According to David Halpern, Chief Executive of the UK Behavioural Insights Team, there are three types of commonly used nudges:

  1. Where the undesirable outcome or choice is moved out of prominent view, as a response to fast brain decision-making. For example, the removal of chocolate bars and sweet treats from the eye-level view of children in supermarkets.
  2. Choice architecture, which involves altering a small-scale environment to cue the desired behaviour. An example of this would be positioning healthier food choices, such as a salad, in a more prominent position compared with unhealthier choices, like chips or pies, in a hospital canteen.
  3. Through the design of policy, which involves collective measures being agreed upon by all relevant stakeholders. An example of this is the Change4Life campaign, which targets healthy lifestyle messages at parents and children through the media.


Choosing the healthy option first (Credit: Betsy Devine)



Is this a successful strategy?

Nudge strategies are successful in altering the food choices made by consumers. One meta-analysis from the United States found that, on average, nudging resulted in a 15.3% increase in healthier dietary or nutritional choices. This has made nudge theory a popular choice amongst policy makers when attempting to tackle the wide range of public health problems faced in the UK, such as the rise in obesity, non-communicable diseases and the toll which these take on the NHS. The UK government even set up its own ‘Nudge Unit’ in 2010 with the explicit task of applying nudge theory to government policies and services.


Levels of childhood obesity have been steadily increasing in the UK, which has resulted in government interventions such as the ‘sugar tax (Credit: NHS)


Since then, we have seen changes to nutritional label positioning, changes to the location of chocolate bars in supermarkets and changes to the fizzy drinks we consume. In an attempt to tackle childhood obesity, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, otherwise known as the ‘sugar tax’, was introduced in April 2018. The tax requires companies to pay 24p per litre of drink if it contains 8g of sugar per 100ml and 18p per litre of drink if it contains between 5-8g of sugar per 100ml, and this has resulted in the recipe reformulation of most soft drinks in the market. Typically, people do not have the time nor inclination to search for the drinks which have not reformulated their recipe, meaning that the British pop-drinking public is consuming less sugar than they did before the introduction of the tax – providing that their level of consumption has remained the same, of course.

In principle, this sounds like a win for public health, therefore, similar strategies could be a win for the sustainability of the global food system. The problem is that there has been no official measurement of how successful these interventions have been. The latest recorded levels of childhood obesity and malnutrition in the UK are still too high. Because of this, Rayner and Lang (2011) argue that nudge is little more than publicly endorsed marketing. Yet others argue that nudge strategies are successful as long as they are not used alone, but as a complement to regulation, particularly to industry regulation.


The role of industry in sustainable food choices

The food industry may be able to give us the answers to how successful government nudge strategies have been. Up-to-date sales data of unhealthy snacks and drinks would be able to show exactly what the effects of the government’s nudge strategies are, but that data is largely difficult and expensive to acquire due to the highly competitive nature of the food industry.

Large scale food retailers are experts in the use of nudge. Everything, from the way in which supermarkets aisles are laid out to the promotional offers contained within the shelves, is designed in such a way as to nudge the consumer into purchasing more. Food retailers have often found themselves under fire for their use of promotional marketing strategies like buy one get one free which contribute to wasted food and obesity, but supermarkets can occasionally be a force for good when it comes to nudging consumers towards healthier choices. One study found that, in combination with a community health awareness programme, point-of-sale signage in a supermarket led to an increase in healthy items being purchased. Another study found that the modification of the way supermarkets package items led to an increased number of fruits and vegetables purchased. It is clear that the way to nudge the British population into consuming a more sustainable diet lies within a combination of government intervention and the support of food retailers.


Supermarket nudges (Credit: Alamy)


In fact, a recent study has already found that supermarket nudge strategies can be successful when it comes to encouraging sustainable food consumption, but here are some alternative ways in which food retailers and policy could work together to nudge consumers into making sustainable food choices:

  • Moving meat-free alternatives to meat product shelves so they are placed alongside the ‘original’ version. Vegetarian or vegan meat substitutes are often found in their own section far away from the ‘real’ meat and are generally only found by people who are looking for them. By moving the items and giving the meat-free items prominent shelf space and clear labelling, consumers are given a choice at the point where they would normally make their red meat purchases.
  • Sustained promotional activity and point-of-sale signage and advertising on items which have a low environmental impact but cost significantly more than the high impact alternative. For example, this could include 2-4-1 offers on shelf-stable, or ambient, alternative milks, particularly low impact milks such as oat.
  • Research carried out in Sweden found that an environmental consumption tax imposed on meat and dairy products could reduce emissions of GHG, nitrogen and phosphorus up to 12% from their food sector. A similar intervention could be applied here.

This combination of taxation, resulting in increased costs of meat and dairy products, and active promotion of meat and dairy free alternatives could be enough to nudge the purchasing habits of consumers to a more sustainable diet that is better for the planet.


Meat-free sections could be a thing of the past. Credit: AaronCalder Vegan


What next?

Individual nudge strategies alone will not change the diet of British consumers, but I believe the combination of regulation and nudge has the potential to be successful. However, there needs to be a joined-up approach between the government and retailers if the UK is serious about tackling the problems associated with so many eating an unsustainable diet, and it needs to happen soon. Rates of obesity and non-communicable diseases will continue to increase and tackling climate change will become even more difficult. There are of course both national and global economic consequences to consider in relation to reduced demand for red meat and dairy products (and that discussion alone could take up another blog post) but the consequences of not embracing a more sustainable diet are dire.


Header photo Credit: Ella Olsson