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Report of the Nudge-it Symposium: Healthy food choice - State of the Art, Challenges & Solutions

UMC, Utrecht 13 April 2016, report by Dr Noemi Berlin, Dr John Menzies and Dr Paul Smeets

utrecht photo
The final activity of the most recent Nudge-it consortium meeting was a public symposium on healthy food choice. The symposium was organised by Prof Roger Adan and Dr Paul Smeets and brought together key stakeholders from academia, government and industry. Prof Gareth Leng (Nudge-it Co-ordinator, University of Edinburgh) and Dr Benedikt Herrmann (European Commission Joint Research Centre) chaired the symposium.

Prof Lucia Reisch (Copenhagen Business School) started her presentation by developing the idea that the human mind must cope with an impulsive vs. a reflective system when making choices, including food choices.  The approach of nudging can affect the impulsive system, at a lower cost than other policy tools, and hence changes behaviours towards healthier choices for example. She encouraged the use of nudges in addition to existing policies tools such as taxation or information in order to expand the toolbox of efficient policies.

Following this, Prof Denise de Ridder (Utrecht University) developed some examples of nudge interventions on improving food choices with insights from psychology. As an example, she showed that nudges are effective to act on specific cognitive processes such as self-control that would induce reductions in impulsive eating which is usually correlated with unhealthy food intake.

The epidemiologist Dr Johannes Brug (VU University Health Centre) insisted on a model for changing behaviours that relies on three factors: motivation, ability and opportunity. According to Dr Brug, a specific focus should be made on the interaction between the individual and her environment to enable changes in behaviours and such that the healthy option should become almost the only available choice, i.e. the default option.

Dr Liesbeth Zandstra (Univlever R&D) explained that nudges can be a tool used by the industry so that they can meet with the specific needs of the consumer. The company tries to improve the quality of their food products by meeting public health recommendations like reducing salt and sugar. However, she warns about the counter effect of these changes while using nudges such that reducing salt in products and specifically labelling this on the product can lead consumers to add even more salt afterwards, and that this kind of behaviours should also be taken into consideration.

Dr Jan Steijns (FrieslandCampina Innovation) strongly encouraged discussions between academics and the private sector to reach trade-offs that would benefit both the food industry and public health. He defined sustainable nutrition as “more people need to be fed with less environmental impact” and presented the actual and future sustainable policies and goals for his company such as food reformulation (stepwise sugar and salt reduction) and a decrease in emission of greenhouse gases.

Frederike Mensink (Netherland Nutrition Centre) is a behavioural change specialist. Their work focuses on “healthy, safe and sustainable food.” One of their studies showed that people tend to underestimate and not to be aware of the effect of the food environment they live in, especially the abundance of available and cheap unhealthy food, on their food choices. She then described different nudging campaigns and programs that they implemented to increase healthy choices and habits.

Dr Henk Reinen (Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport) spoke about the objectives for the following years of the Dutch government: to halt the increasing prevalence of overweight and reverse the increase in the number of overweight children. This will use a policy strategy that, in line with Dr Brug’s talk, focuses on making the healthy choice the easy or default choice for nutrition and physical activity. Dr Reinen presented the different on-going and future Dutch policies for healthier diet that specifically target the youth where healthy choices are readily available and appealing in their environment like healthy school canteens, informative on food products, and a broader community approach.

Prof Michèle Belot (University of Edinburgh) spoke about issues around healthy eating in children. Evidence shows that dietary choices can impact obesity in children, but also influence their educational or health outcomes. This justifies even more the effort to increase healthy food preferences and consumption in children. She presented several research studies in economics using various types of incentives (stickers, money, lottery ticket for a prize) and schemes (individual, competitive) which have shown to have a significant and positive effect on healthier food choices and intakes in children in schools. She points out that there is still a lack of evidence for long term effects which, as a next step, should be further explored.

Overall, this well-attended symposium showed us that we are heading in the right direction, but that more time and effort is needed to make the healthier food and lifestyle choices the default choices. This will require continued concerted action from all stakeholders and further development of the scientific knowledge base underlying policy instruments.

Coming soon - a new journal of Behavioural Economics

A new journal of behavioural economics to be entitled “Behavioural Public Policy”  is to be published by Cambridge University Press

Our Nudge-it colleague Professor Lucia Reisch, at Copenhagen Business School is involved with an exciting new journal of Behavioural economics to be published soon. 

The new journal will be international and will take a broad approach, considering articles from scholars in many fields - economists, psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists amongst others so long as the work links the study of human behaviour directly to a policy problem.  All articles however, will be accessible to a multidisciplinary audience and not written in specialist terms.

The three lead editors – Nobel Laureate George Akerlof (Georgetown), Adam Oliver (London School of Economics) and Nudge-it partner Cass Sunstein (Harvard) – are world renowned in the field of behavioural economics, law and policy whist the editorial board members comprise leading academics from around the world.   

Publication is hoped to begin in January 2017 and more information will follow so keep checking our news items.

The Nudge-it Mooc successfully completes its first run

MOOC logo


The Nudge-it Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) recently finished its successful first run. The course,called “Understanding Obesity”, attracted over 18,000 sign-ups and featured a very lively and thought-provoking discussion forum.

As well as films and audio material, the course featured three Citizen Science projects where participants were invited to collect data on their BMI, their energy intake and food preferences. As well as providing data to discuss in the context of common ideas about weight gain and obesity, these projects provided a way of understanding how scientists design, analyse and interpret research studies.

Dr John Menzies (University of Edinburgh) was the lead instructor on the course. He said “It was very pleasing to see evidence of careful and reasoned thinking, and more than once, participants made points or asked questions that have made me look at things in a different light”.

One of the course participants wrote: “I came to this course with one "truth" on my mind. I´m leaving with the real one. We all want to know the answers, we want to know "what it is" but it´s also very important to know "what it´s not". Great teachers and great people discussing great ideas. This is what makes knowledge go forward”.

The second iteration of the MOOC will run on the FutureLearn platform in early 2017 alongside a sister MOOC on physical activity (SitLess, run by Dr Danijela Gašević, University of Edinburgh).

Bristol University Nutrition and Behaviour Unit at the Science Museum, London

Researchers from the Nutrition and Behaviour Unit (NBU) at the University of Bristol have been collaborating with a team from Roehampton University as part of a Live Science project, to find out why we choose certain foods and why some of us have a tendency to overeat. The work has been carried out in the London Science Museum.

NBU at science museum 1

NBU at science museum 2


The study (led by Dr Leigh Gibson) addresses the debate over the risk and causes of obesity, which currently affects two thirds of adults and is still rising, according to Public Health England. Volunteers took part in a variety of tasks to analyse their relationship with food, which includes recording their food preferences. 826 adults and children took part throughout October. The team are particularly interested in a connection between a person’s personality, their genes, and their appetite for fatty or sugary foods.

The current study has been part funded via a five-year EU project called Nudge-it, which is being conducted by the NBU and by several partner organisations across Europe.

Professor Brunstrom commented “We are very grateful to the Science Museum for hosting this study. This is a fantastic opportunity to collect valuable data and to tell the public more about the work that we do.”

Find out more