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Taxing unhealthy foods may encourage healthier eating habits
Date:2/24/2010

Recently, the Obama administration called for a total ban on candy and soda in the nation's schools. States are beginning to impose "sin taxes" on fat and sugar to dissuade people from eating junk food. Pricing strategies may well be a key to changing behavior, but others favor subsidies over punitive taxes, as a way to encourage people to eat fruits and vegetables and whole grains. The thought is that if you make it cheaper, people will eat more of it, more expensive and people will eat less.

Decades of behavioral economics research argues that consumers are not always so rational and the two strategies have never been tested head to head, to see which one most effectively alters calorie consumption. So, psychological scientist Leonard Epstein at University of Buffalo, decided to explore the persuasiveness of sin taxes and subsides in the laboratory.

Epstein and colleagues simulated a grocery store, "stocked" with images of everything from bananas and whole wheat bread to Dr. Pepper and nachos. A group of volunteers all mothers were given laboratory "money" to shop for a week's groceries for the family. Each food item was priced the same as groceries at a real grocery nearby, and each food came with basic nutritional information.

The mother-volunteers went shopping several times in the simulated grocery. First they shopped with the regular prices, but afterward the researchers imposed either taxes or subsidies on the foods. That is, they either raised the prices of unhealthy foods by 12.5%, and then by 25%; or they discounted the price of healthy foods comparably. Then they watched what the mothers purchased.

To define healthy and unhealthy foods, the scientists used a calorie-for-nutrition value, or CFN, which is the number of calories one must eat to get the same nutritional payoff. For example, nonfat cottage cheese has a very low CFN, because it is high on nutrition but not on calories; chocolate chip cookies have a mu
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Contact: Catherine Allen-West
cwest@psychologicalscience.org
202-293-9300
Association for Psychological Science
Source:Eurekalert

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