Just a Nudge Toward Healthier Food Choices

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By Paul Hollis

Auburn scientists work to promote nutritious food selections, enhance safety

Health and safety are at the forefront of U.S. consumer concerns about the food they eat, and Auburn researchers are addressing those concerns with groundbreaking work that explores encouraging healthier food choices and ensuring the safety of those choices.

Norbert Wilson Norbert Wilson, Auburn agricultural economics professor, partnered with Cornell University faculty in studying food pantry clients' shopping behaviors.

In a study published this spring in the Journal of Public Health, Auburn University and Cornell University researchers found that product placement and packaging had a significant impact on what clients selected in a New York State food pantry.

“Food pantries offer a unique opportunity to nudge those most at risk of hunger to select more nutrient-dense foods,” says Norbert Wilson, a professor in Auburn’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology and lead author of the article. “Introducing easy, low-cost marketing strategies is a way to do that without taking away choice.”

This study is the first to provide evidence for the effectiveness of simple behavioral interventions in the food pantry setting in order to encourage the selection of targeted foods.

Wilson is familiar with client-choice food pantries through his involvement with the Food Bank of East Alabama, located in Auburn.

“The Food Bank’s Community Market is set up like a grocery store, and it’s exciting that people can choose what they want,” says Wilson, who serves on the food bank’s board. “But on the downside, clients may select foods that are not good for them.”

Wilson’s research also was influenced by Cornell University’s Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, which was started in 2009 with the goal of creating sustainable research-based lunchrooms that guide smarter choices by school students.

A HEALTHY BALANCE

The challenge facing a client-choice pantry is finding ways to encourage healthy food selection without restricting choice, Wilson says, while still respecting the dignity of individuals to make a choice.

The opportunity for Wilson to scientifically investigate the phenomenon came about more than a year ago, while he was on sabbatical from Auburn to serve as a visiting professor at Cornell.

“Cornell received funding from USDA to explore the use of behavioral economics, which is the idea that small changes in an environment can encourage people to make different choices,” Wilson says. “This concept makes perfect sense for use in a food pantry setting.”

Working with scientists at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, Wilson carried out the experiment at a food pantry at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Ithaca, New York, near Cornell.

“The particular issue we were looking at—protein bars versus desserts—was more by chance,” Wilson says. “We visited the pantry a couple of times to find where to best conduct our interventions. We realized these protein bars were in the dessert section, and people were overlooking them, so we began to think about how to encourage the selection of the healthier choice.”

The researchers observed 443 clients visiting the pantry over a four-day period. Protein bars were located in the dessert section of the pantry, right alongside cakes, brownies, pies and pastries.

Because the bars were the most nutrient-rich foods, the researchers made two small changes to nudge selection: They moved the protein bars to the most visible position in the section, and, instead of displaying the bars as individually wrapped items, they kept them in their original multi-bar packages.

SIGNIFICANT IMPACT

The first of those changes increased healthy food selections by about 46 percent while the latter change only led to a 59 percent jump. And when the protein bars were the most visible items and were kept in original packaging, they were even more popular.

hands holding cans In food pantries, giving more nutritious products prime shelf space and keeping them in their original packaging can improve clients’ choices.

Food pantry organizers receive a broad mix of healthy and not-so-healthy products, but the research showed that making the healthier products more convenient and more appealing can encourage clients to select foods that are better for them.

“There are a lot of really good people out there engaged in food pantries and in food banking, and we’re trying to provide some simple options to encourage the selection of healthier products,” Wilson says.

Feeding America—a nationwide network of food banks and the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity—along with other food pantries want to see empirical evidence that such options will have an effect, he says.

Key takeaways from the research include:

  • Subtle marketing changes can prompt food pantry clients to choose healthier products.
  • Making better-for-you items more visible can boost the products’ selection.
  • Offering healthy items in original packaging can increase selection.

Wilson continues to look at issues related to food security and how people with low incomes think about the choices they make, specifically in relation to food pantries, and he hopes to include a number of food banks in his studies.

His research collaborators at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab included David Just, Jeffery Swigert and Brian Wansink. The work was supported by the Agricultural and Food Research Initiative Competitive Program of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The study, along with a video, can be viewed at foodpsychology.cornell.edu/discoveries/nudging-health-food-pantries.

FARM TO TABLE

Meanwhile, Auburn scientists are working to improve pathogen monitoring throughout the food supply chain by creating a user-friendly system that can detect multiple foodborne pathogens simultaneously, accurately, cost effectively and rapidly.

Auburn’s research is unique in that it uses biological rather than manmade nanotechnology to accomplish its goals, says Sang-Jin Suh, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and an Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station researcher.

Suh is also a member of the Auburn University Detection and Food Safety Center, and he credits its director, Bryan Chin, a materials engineering professor, with developing the biosensor technology that is the basis for the research.

“This is Dr. Chin’s innovation, and he recruited people like me—a bacterial geneticist—to help combine these technologies into a particle-based biosensor that can be used to detect food pathogens,” Suh says.

Estimates are that as many as 48 million Americans become ill annually due to foodborne pathogens and toxins, resulting in a nearly $80 billion economic burden. These estimates do not consider costs to the food industry, including reduced consumer confidence, recall losses or litigation.

As outbreaks of foodborne pathogens and recalls of contaminated foods have become more common, it has become apparent that better pathogen detection systems are needed to identify contaminated food before it is consumed by the public.

RAPID DETECTION

“Whenever food is contaminated, it usually takes the FDA, CDC or other labs days or weeks to confirm the presence of pathogens,” Suh says. “Our technology can do it in less than 10 minutes.

“Presently, whenever there’s a foodborne pathogen outbreak, they have to take the contaminated food and grow bacteria from it, requiring a few hours to a few days,” he says. “Then they will see if it fits the pattern of a suspected pathogen. By contrast, we isolate the probes that are specific for that pathogen. If it binds to the probe, then we know the particular pathogen is present.”

In addition to the length of time required for results in current food pathogen detection systems, they also require expensive instruments and extensive training for personnel.

“The two most popular methods of detecting pathogens, other than the traditional culturing method, require extensive training,” Suh says. “Our method will require minimum training. We envision that every farmer will have this capability, processing plants will have this capability and grocers and restaurants will have this capability. Even consumers will be able to use this technology.”

SUPER SENSITIVE

A hand-held, user-friendly biosensor that Auburn scientists are developing could detect multiple pathogens on fresh fruits and other foods in as little as 10 minutes. A hand-held, user-friendly biosensor that Auburn scientists are developing could detect multiple pathogens on fresh fruits and other foods in as little as 10 minutes.

The biosensor will be a hand–held monitor that eventually will detect the presence of a food pathogen as far as 10 centimeters away from the device.

“This will allow for safety checks on food from the farm to the table,” Suh says. “The detector would cost less than $500 and could eventually save billions of dollars and many lives.”

An objective of Suh’s research is to develop a system that will allow for the simultaneous identification of multiple foodborne pathogens in real time, including salmonella enterica, E. coli and listeria monocytogenes.

“We have previously demonstrated the efficacy of our biosensors for accurate and rapid detection of individual pathogens,” Suh says. “In this study, we will develop a multiplex system capable of detecting the presence of several common foodborne bacterial pathogens.

“As we improve our system in future studies, it can be expanded to include viruses and toxins to become a comprehensive detection system for any foodborne pathogens to improve public safety.”

Auburn’s team of researchers is collaborating with scientists at other universities to use this technology and hopes to gain FDA approval for widespread use in the future. Auburn is one of 11 universities awarded grants by the USDA earlier this year to conduct nanotechnology research.

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