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Dietary guidelines, information policies and consumer behaviour

Using a methodology that takes account of consumer behaviour, an evaluation of the costs and benefits of different dietary guidelines has highlighted the usefulness of information policies targeting consumers.

Fresh lettuces. © INRA, SLAGMULDER Christian
Updated on 09/05/2017
Published on 07/11/2017

Associated with a lack of physical exercise, a poorly-balanced diet that contains too much fat, sugar and salt or is deficient in fruits and vegetables can cause a large number of chronic conditions (obesity, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer). This observation has led many countries to promulgate information campaigns – under the impetus of the National Nutrition and Health Programme (PNNS) in the case of France – in order to encourage consumers to adopt a healthier diet.

Our food also contributes to total greenhouse gas emissions, since 15% to 30% of emissions by developed countries are linked to the food chain, from production to consumption. The need to limit these emissions has led numerous experts to recommend changes to dietary behaviours and the adoption of more environmentally-friendly diets. At present, these guidelines, which notably focus on reducing the consumption of animal products, are not included in the information campaigns initiated by the authorities in France.

This dual observation raises a certain number of questions: how should our current dietary regimes evolve in order to improve their impacts on public health and the environment? Which recommendations should be put forward as a priority in information campaigns that target the general population? Which are those which offer the best cost-benefit balance if account is taken of both health and environmental externalities and the costs of adaptation that will be faced by consumers?

The value of taking account of consumer preferences

INRA scientists and their colleagues recently proposed a methodology to evaluate the costs and benefits of different dietary and nutritional guidelines. The principal originality of their approach was to take account of consumer behaviour; unlike many other studies, the adaptation of diets following the implementation of consumption guidelines was based on consumer preferences. These were characterised from an analysis of food purchasing by a sample of 20,000 French households.

The costs of taking account of these factors in the evaluation concerned both the cost of the adoption of the guidelines by consumers and the costs associated with campaigns to promote and provide information on these guidelines. The potential benefits would arise from an impact on public health (reduction in deaths related to all chronic conditions) and on the environment (reduction in greenhouse emissions).

It was notably clear that the cost of adoption by consumers would vary markedly depending on the guidelines envisaged; environmental and public health goals are generally compatible; the economic value of health effects is generally much higher than that of environmental effects; regarding a large number of guidelines, policies to inform consumers present a favourable cost-benefit ratio, thus suggesting that it is pertinent to intensify these promotional campaigns.

In the context of the European SUSDIET project (ERANET-SUSFOOD programme), analyses of the same type and using the same methodology are now being carried out in other countries. It will be interesting to determine the degree to which the conclusions on food and nutritional guidelines converge, or not, in several European Union countries.

Find out more

Irz X., Leroy P., Réquillart V., Soler L-G. (2015). Economic assessment of nutritional recommendations. Journal of Health Economics. 39: 188.

Irz X., Leroy P., Réquillart V., Soler L-G. (2016). Welfare and sustainability effects of dietary recommandations. Ecological Economics. 130: 139.

Irz X., Leroy P., Réquillart V., Soler L-G. (2016). Beyond Wishful Thinking: Integrating Consumer Preferences in the Assessment of Dietary Recommendations. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0158453. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.015845