02 Aug 2021
The latest talk in the Sasin Research Seminar series comes from Assistant Professor Pavitra Jindahra, Ph.D. and discusses ‘Seemingly Healthy Choices: How Daily Sugar Limit Label Overshadowed by Nutrition Claims’. The study is based on the fact that excessive sugar consumption is a major cause of obesity and numerous non-communicable diseases (NCD). There has been a notable rise in sugar intake, resulting in a 15% rise in NCD deaths in the past decade. These levels need to be brought down, and one way to do that is through labeling. The paper examines the effect labels have on sugar intake. It looks at consumer choices resulting from labels that note sugar intake limits, have warning labels, or make nutrition claims. The study uses the mixed logit model on Thai data of conjoint beverage choices. Assistant Professor Pavitra began by noting the rise of obese people each year. The trend started in wealthier countries in the west but has since spread around the world. For example, in Thailand, the number of overweight adults doubled between 1991-2009 from 17% to 35% and is the second most obese country in ASEAN, after Malaysia. The reason why this is important is down to the cost. Not only does obesity lead to NCD deaths, social and personal loss, it also has economic consequences. The US, for example, spends 7% of total annual medical expenditure, or US$75 billion, tackling obesity. The primary causes of obesity are the overconsumption of energy-dense food and physical inactivity. Assistant Professor Pavitra then showed there had been a 30% increase in Thai sugar consumption since 2009, and per capita, Thai people consume three times more than the global average. The problem is convincing consumers to be healthier. Assistant Professor Pavitra then explained the choice architecture and how labelling strategies can nudge people to make better choices without forcing them. She examined some of the labelling options. Nutrition facts on labels are already compulsory everywhere, and they help. Another type of label is the ‘approval symbol’ identifying the product as a healthy choice. In the west, there is also a ‘traffic’ label denoting levels based on daily intake recommendations. Some countries also have warning labels, such as in the US with sugary drinks. There can be problems with some labels, however, in particular those that make nutritional claims. Sometimes, healthy aspects are highlighted while harmful ingredients are ignored. Assistant Professor Pavitra gave the example of an orange juice brand with a label noting high numbers of vitamins, leading consumers to think it’s a healthy option, but it ignores high sugar content. Assistant Professor Pavitra then explained how data for the study was gathered through a conjoint choice experiment to see the effect of labels. Three hundred and ninety individuals took part and chose a product based on what was most appealing. The choices varied – no labels, a warning label, a nutrition label, or a combination. She then explained how the findings were calculated and how the data was presented. The results showed that warning labels had a significant effect. People with healthy habits wanted lower sugar, although interestingly, Thai men preferred sweeter products than women. Nutrition claims influence choice selection, and consumers are swayed by such labels, even if the product is actually unhealthy. Assistant Professor Pavitra then discussed ways these findings could be implemented to help change lifestyles. Labels with warnings that show things like sugar content in relation to daily limits are really helpful. However, nutrition claims need to be monitored more closely, and claims made by high sugar content manufacturers need more regulation. In some countries, sugar taxes have been successful, but not in all. The talk was highly informative and was followed by an interesting Q&A. Issues discussed included problems faced by governments in implementing policies, how companies hide unhealthy ingredients, consumer psychology, how rich people tend to buy healthier food than poor due to prices, and that the trend has been for foods getting sweeter over time.