Scaring down a bag of chips is not a problem for most consumers. The case is different with vegetables however. How can the consumer be enticed to choose for a more healthy snack? During her inaugural speech at the Wageningen University & Research, professor Liesbeth Zandstra, associate professor Food Reward and Behaviour, paved way to healthy eating patterns. Her chair has come to be due to the financial support of Unilever R&D Vlaardingen, Belgium, and placed in the Department of Human Nutrition of the university.

Why do many consumers find it more convenient to finish a bag of chips or a plate of fried snacks then a plate of cauliflower? Can you ‘entice’ consumers to make the healthier decision or better yet: to make a habit out of making the healthy decision? Professor Liesbeth Zandstra examines ways to make the consumer choose for the healthy option.

Choosing ‘bad’ does not have an immediate effect
After all the professor says, 'Products with lots of sugar, fat and salt are popular because flavour, smell and texture – for instance the crunch of chips – and the appearance brings you an immediate reward. Sugar, fat and salt also immediately give a positive physiological and emotional effect, like feeling satisfied and relaxed. The health of these products or even their sustainability are long term effects that are only now becoming evident, like healthy teeth or a healthy body figure. These are things that at the moment of consumption hardly seem to matter. You don’t feel it directly,’ explains the professor during her inaugural speech Food Reward Matters.

Replacement rewards
To be able to motivate the consumer into making the healthy choice, the researchers are looking for rewards to replace the strong and immediate rewards people get when consuming sugar, salt and fats. 'We are looking for methods or combinations of them that will eventually stimulate the same feel-good-area of the brain that is stimulated when the consumer eats an unhealthy snack,’ professor Zandstra informs.

One way this can be done is by exchanging the rewards, this means the consumer will take an appropriate product but instead of the natural reward like sugar an artificial reward is given like comfort, ‘discounts’ or stimulating ‘way-to-go’- texts on the packaging. ‘It is important that the product will remain accepted uninterrupted. To do this we need to accumulate a fundamental understanding about the underlining mechanics of rewards by conducting a scientific research, to gain knowledge about healthy product experience and positive reward responses.’

These are mainly caused by the so-called top-down effect of a product that need to compete with the bottom-up effects caused by the powerful reward incentives of sugar, salt and fat and the memory of previous consumption. Healthy products don’t incentivise a lot of bottom-up effects. The compensation with top-down effects in this case needs to come from, for instance, labels, product information or brands that bring forth certain expectations. 'Top-down effect can sometimes even overwhelm bottom-up effects, but we don’t have enough information on this yet,’ says professor Zandstra.

Because of this her research, on the one hand, aims at exploring the rewards of food in relation with health, because it is still unclear why people choose for certain food products and not for others and, on the other hand, on the rewards that matter, so that it can be concluded how replacement rewards can support the healthy eating pattern.

Source: Wageningen University and Research