Why Making Healthful Foods Cheaper Isn't Enough Researchers set up an experiment to see how prices influence what kinds of food moms buy. They found that lowering the prices on fruits and vegetables did lead to moms buying more. But it didn't stop them from buying junk food, too.
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Why Making Healthful Foods Cheaper Isn't Enough

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Why Making Healthful Foods Cheaper Isn't Enough

Why Making Healthful Foods Cheaper Isn't Enough

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Today in Your Health, we have news that comes from research about kids and families. In a moment, a story about how earaches can shape how the brain learns to hear. First, NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on how to get kids and families to eat better.

ALLISON AUBREY: The first incentive is financial. Let's call it bucks for broccoli, or cash for carrots. Can you make people buy healthier food? Would that work? I put the question to Dean Karlan, a behavioral economist at Yale University.

Professor DEAN KARLAN (Behavioral Economist, Yale University): So in the case of broccoli, you want to find out who's not eating broccoli, and then pay them to eat broccoli.

AUBREY: But Karlan says financial incentives for food purchases could be tricky. For instance, how much cash is needed to get people's attention? Researchers at the University of Buffalo have just finished a study looking into this. They recruited a bunch of moms to shop for groceries in a simulated supermarket, and gave them each the same amount of money. The researchers manipulated the prices a couple of different ways. First, they made the healthy foods - items such fruits and vegetables - a lot cheaper.

Dr. LEN EPSTEIN (Pediatrics, University of Buffalo): And then we looked at the purchasing patterns of these mothers, as if they were purchasing these foods for their family for the week.

AUBREY: Researcher Len Epstein says the moms' choices were somewhat predictable.

Dr. EPSTEIN: They did buy more of the healthier foods.

AUBREY: But here's the rub: Since the healthy foods cost a lot less, the moms had money left over. And what did they do with it? Well, Epstein says they used it to buy more junk food.

Dr. EPSTEIN: So when you put it all together, their shopping baskets didn't have improved nutrition. They had basically the exact, same percentage of fat and percentage of carbohydrates.

AUBREY: So if subsidizing healthy foods leads to the unintended consequence of people spending more on junk, might there be another way to structure incentives?

Well, when the researchers tried a different price manipulation - basically, placing a hefty tax on junk food - they found that this stopped people from buying so much of it. So are taxes more effective than subsidies?

Dr. EPSTEIN: That's what our data looks like.

AUBREY: And behavioral economist Dean Karlan says the findings are not a big surprise.

Prof. KARLAN: No, not at all. People are more responsive to price increases than decreases.

AUBREY: Karlan says a junk food tax would not change families' diets overnight. But it could serve as a first step to raise awareness of bad habits, such as the kinds of things we choose to snack on. For example, kids like sweets.

Unidentified Child #1: Skittles.

Unidentified Child #2: Skittles.

Unidentified Child #3: Yeah, Skittles.

Unidentified Child #4: Skittles.

AUBREY: But research shows that limiting kids' choices can really make a difference. These middle-schoolers in Somerville, Massachusetts, are not allowed to bring Skittles to school. In fact, they can't bring snacks at all.

Mr. MARCOS AZERBIDO (Student, Argenziano School): I used to bring Doritos every day. But then they gave us juicy fruit.

AUBREY: Fresh fruit is the only option Marcos Azerbido, and all of his classmates, have for snacks these days.

Unidentified Child #5: Bring an apple.

Unidentified Child #6: There are green ones and red ones and yellowish ones and, like, orangey ones.

AUBREY: On their way out the door for morning recess, the kids reach into bins filled with apples and bananas.

Ms. SHARYN LAMER (Teacher, Argenziano School) Once they get it every single day, once it's right in front of their face, yeah, they'll have like, three bananas. They'll eat a ton.

AUBREY: Seventh grade teacher Sharyn Lamer says she couldn't convince many kids to eat fruit at snack time when parents were sending them chips or sugary treats.

Ms. LAMER: But now that it's the rule all the way across, the kids are really into it. And then it's not me being the mean, bad teacher that's making them not eat their Doritos.

AUBREY: Lamer says as the whole school culture has changed, kids may start thinking a little differently about food choices at home.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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