Unhealthy snacking: ready to intervene?

Consumer acceptance of interventions to stimulate healthier choices

The past few decades, many people have been eating more calories than their bodies are burning. As a result, more and more people are getting overweight or even obese. Snacking, which is consumption of food and drinks between meals, is believed to be an important contributor to this problem, the more because snacks often are high in calories. Stimulating people to choose low-calorie over high-calorie snacks may therefore be an effective route to healthier snacking and less overweight.

There are different ways in which healthier snacks can be promoted. Some of them are not very intrustive or annoying, such as giving information about the healthiness of snacks at a food label. Others are more intrusive in that they more or less ‘force’ consumers to choose a healthy snack by restricting the less healthy (and often tasty) snacks to a small set. It is generally assumed that the stronger the intervention, the more consumers respond negatively because the freedom to choose what you want is in question. This response can even lead to the opposite of what the intervention tries to achieve: consumers restoring their choice freedom by eating snacks high in calories. Moreover, research shows that intrusive types of interventions are less acceptable to consumers when they are asked for their opinion. How other intervention characteristics influence acceptance, however, is not completely clear. Therefore, we investigated how low-calorie snack choices can be stimulated without evoking negative reactions from consumers. We did that by designing an experiment in which participtants read a text about an intervention in an online questionnaire. We developed a total of 128 different intervention strategies that systematically differ on 6 characteristics: (1) the level of intrusiveness (e.g. information or restricting choice), (2), who is intervening, (3) where is the intervention, (4), which product are involved, (5) the type of interventions and (6) the severity of the intervention.

We had these intervention strategies evaluated by 1173 Dutch participants. Each participant evaluated only a part of the entire set of inventions (16 of the 128 interventions). They rated each intervention on how effective they thought the intervention would be, both for themselves as for society as a whole; how fair they thought the intervention was; and if they supported the implementation of the intervention in real life.

We found that the extent to which people accept interventions indeed depends on perceptions of effectiveness and fairness: the more effective and fair people perceive an intervention to be, the more they accept it. It did not matter for consumers where an intervention is done (e.g. supermarket or train station). What did matter was the developer or ‘sender’ of the intervention. Interventions implemented by the government are less acceptable than interventions implemented by food manufacturers. That may be because they viewed government interventions to be paternalistic (see our earlier study). Moreover, consumers who are already motivated to eat healthy were much more positive than others in accepting interventions that encouraged them to snack healthy.

When generalizing these results to real-life situations, we need to be careful since the interventions in our study were only hypothetical. Therefore our findings will be tested in settings that are closer to real-life situations. Nevertheless, by examining the beliefs that are associated with intervention acceptance, this study contributes to the understanding and anticipation of people’s reactions to the implementation of new interventions that aim to stimulate healthy behaviour.

For the complete article, visit: http://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/7/9/5370

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