The links between food waste, obesity, the environment, and marketing

It’s in our evolutionary interests to eat foods high in fat, sugar and salt. But that was when there was a famine to look forward too…

One of the biggest contributors to obesity and environmental degradation in the past 35 years has been the increasing sophistication of all facets of marketing to create an environment where highly processed and energy dense food is easily available to those living in developed countries. Although it is typically argued that lifestyles have become more sedentary over this time, it is pretty clear that consumers have been encouraged to eat more through highly sophisticated marketing activities, including supply chain management (e.g., easy access to convenience and processed food), pricing (e.g., reduced costs, better “value” and longer perishability of processed foods), as well as integrated advertising campaigns, to purchase and consume foods that provide a high fat, high sugar, and high salt “hit”.

While these foods give an instant reward, overconsumption has a cost to both the environment, and to individual health. New findings by Kevin Hall and his colleagues at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in the US and published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS One that a “push” effect of marketing has contributed significantly to obesity and environmental degradation do not come as a surprise. However, the fact that they have been able to calculate the actual dimensions of the effect of food waste and energy dense food consumed by Americans provides compelling evidence of the extent of this effect, and easily translates to Australian lifestyles.

Ultimately, what this means is that politicians and commentators need to do more than blame consumers, telling them to “eat less” and “exercise more” and start to recognise that not all consumption is good for the economy. While we have increased our energy intake over the past thirty years by more than 1000 kilojoules according to Hall, other research suggests that physical activity has not significantly declined over that period. So, we are eating nearly 25 per cent more “food” over the past three decades, but have not really changed our activity levels (either way) over that time.

Indeed, marketers themselves need to recognise that their activities have an effect far beyond simply selling products. When consumers make choices in their local supermarket, it is the highly processed and packaged foods that have a powerful “push” effect. For example, although a 625 gram block of cheese (promoted as the same price as 500 grams) is presented as “good value”, the consumer will buy (and consume) 125 grams more cheese than they had planned, regardless of the discount for buying in bulk, simply because it was part of the deal. This effect of consuming what we are given might be partly explained by the Jevon’s Paradox, or consumption rebound effects, where consumers will increase their consumption based on the availability of the resource, and partly by our need to consume the portion size that we are given.

Similarly, consumers who are asked whether they “want fries with that”, to upsize, or choose a “Value Meal” instead of a single burger, are being manipulated by a psychological effect called the endowment effect and explained by prospect theory – where they feel the pain of loss more than the satisfaction of gain (it hurts more to lose something than gain something) – that ultimately leads them to consume more than they actually need.

The push effect in this context is similar to the wealth effect, where we adapt our lifestyle to suit our income, rather than simply saving more as we earn more. Ultimately, access to highly processed, energy dense food has meant that we have increased our purchasing and eating behaviour (and our belts outward) to catch up with its availability, rather than continuing to consume as we always have. The effect is devastating to both the environment and to our health.

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2 Responses to The links between food waste, obesity, the environment, and marketing

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