Posted by on September 12, 2017 at 2:07 pm

David Harvey

Consumer behaviour expert David Harvey comments on consumers’ obesity crisis being fuelled by businesses pushing unhealthy food and larger portions on shoppers

“A recent report by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) draws attention to the practice of upselling in the food industry, particularly in restaurants and fast food outlets. Staff in these establishments are often trained to encourage customers to consume more than they initially intended, either by inviting them to ‘go large’ with extra portions, or to purchase additional products.

This is known as upselling and the RSPH estimates that the average customer consumes an additional 17,500 calories per year by agreeing to these offers.

Two thirds of adults in the UK are now considered to be overweight or obese and there is a consensus amongst nutritionists and health experts that this is largely caused by excessive calorie intake and corresponding lack of exercise.

There are clearly both ethical and financial questions as to whether this practice should be allowed or discouraged, given the huge impact that obesity-associated conditions such as heart disease and diabetes can have on an individual’s health and the National Health Service’s ability to treat increasing numbers of patients with limited resources. However, many food providers’ business models are based on upselling as an essential component of profitability.

To take a common example, a medium-sized Big Mac meal at McDonald’s, consists of a burger, fries and coke for £4.69. Total calories 1,120.  A large-sized Big Mac meal costs £5.09 and contains 1,350 calories.  From a ‘calories per pound’ perspective, the customer is getting a better deal for the extra cost of ‘going large’ (11.3% more calories per pound).  From McDonald’s perspective, the cost of the extra food is probably insignificant compared to their other overheads.  So they would rather take the extra 40 pence each time.  Both they and the customer are happy – at least in the short term.

But of course, ‘going large’ probably means the consumer ‘becoming large’ some time later, unless they are prepared to take additional exercise to burn off the extra calories.

Most people are aware of the long-term consequences of eating too much and not taking enough exercise. They often feel guilty when they over-indulge, but many are serial re-offenders.  So why don’t consumers resist these bad habits?  Is it the fast-food company’s fault, or the consumer’s?

The problem is that consumer’s slow, rational, decision-making powers (known as System 2 thinking) often become subservient to their faster more automatic habits (known as System 1 thinking) in many situations. The environment of a fast food restaurant along with the pricing structure and timely staff invitations to go large, create a ‘choice architecture’ which nudges us into taking advantage of what seems like a good deal at the time.

The RSPH suggests that better labelling and information could help, such as including not just the calorie content, but also the equivalent amount of exercise required to burn off the calories. Many consumers who they surveyed said they would welcome such moves.  Unfortunately, this extra information would require consumers to use their System 2 thinking to make sense of it and act on it.  The reality is that System 1 thinking would probably ignore it and rely on bad habits to make a decision.  What people say and what they actually do are often disconnected!

Which begs the question, should the government intervene on the consumer’s behalf to protect them and legislate to limit the upselling of excessive calories?

There would of course be huge resistance and counter-lobbying by the food industry and objections from libertarians about more ‘nanny-state’ interference. Apart from all that the enforcement of such controls would also require huge resources.

For better or worse, I think the British public will continue to ‘go large and get large’ for the foreseeable future.”

Read more on this story on the BBC News webpage

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