Your Health Insurer May Start Paying You to Eat Better

By Naomi Mannino, dealnews contributor

For many people, eating healthy is a challenge. It can be especially hard to break bad habits, fight cravings, and view it as anything other than a bland chore. And naturally there are cost considerations, too. As a result, eating less-than-healthy foods is often just easier.

But what if someone actually paid you to pick up more nutritious foods at the local supermarket? Would you choose meals that are leaner and greener? Some health insurance companies are betting that consumers would indeed change their eating habits if money was on the line.

An experiment by the RAND Corporation in South Africa tested out an incentivized healthy eating plan, in which shoppers received cash back for select purchases. When doing so, the group saw an increase in the overall ratio of healthy foods purchased to the total food expenditure from many of its participants.

According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) reports on the effects of researchers gave cash-back incentives of 10% and 25% for fruits and vegetables, non-fat dairy products, and other healthy food at more than 400 supermarkets in South Africa. During this 4-year period, researchers also collected credit card data for 170,000 households, 60% of which were enrolled for the rebate program. (The study only tracked purchases at one supermarket chain per household.) The group's findings show that rebates increased the ratio of healthy to total food purchased by 9.3%, and decreased undesirable purchases by 7.2%.

Rebates for Fresh and Healthy Eating in the U.S.

As a result of the encouraging findings from the South African study, U.S. health insurers are planning to offer similar incentives for Americans; next month Medica Health Insurance households will receive member discount cards in a Midwest regional roll-out, and Solutran (the discount processing technology provider) will launch the program nationally in 2014.

While these programs may start out with lesser rebates of 5% and 10%, the discounts will be available immediately at checkout when eligible shoppers present a member card. Participating regional launch retailers include Supervalu, Inc. (Cub Foods stores), Roundy's Supermarkets, Inc. (Rainbow stores), and Lund Food Holdings, Inc. (Lunds and Byerly's stores). Health insurance companies hope that these programs will help to decrease preventable, expensive illnesses.

Despite all this optimism, not everyone is convinced that monetary incentives are enough to change eating habits. In a spirited debate on RetailWire, participants argued the reality of the rebate. "It's doubtful that many Americans who are already addicted to the SAD [Standard American Diet] will make efforts to give up their lifestyle for a few bucks," said Ken Lonyai, Digital Innovation Strategist and Co-Founder of ScreenPlay InterActive.

Why U.S. Consumers Are Hooked on Unhealthy Foods

Meanwhile the food industry is exceptionally busy opposing these efforts by keeping Americans addicted to salt, sugar, and fat in very specific ways, as exposed by Michael Moss in his new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

During an interview with Moss on The Daily Show last month, Jon Stewart even remarked that, "The story of how the food conglomerates have hooked us on these substances is incredibly unappetizing. It's so scientific. I had no idea." Moss went on to explain in the interview precisely how a Dr. Pepper soda scientist tested 61 different variations on the sugar content to discover its absolute "bliss point" that makes consumers "have to have it." Perhaps more disturbing is the explanation of how, as a Cheeto melts in one's mouth, it sends a signal to the brain suggesting that its calories have vanished (called the "vanishing caloric density"). This process then encourages us to eat more.

Moss also discovered additional ways that food scientists use salt, sugar, and fat against consumers:

  • Food manufacturers have altered the physical structure of salt in order to increase its allure and to send the strongest possible signals to the brain.
  • The food giants take advantage of the fact that we actually have sugar receptors in every last one of our mouths' 10,000 taste buds, down our esophagus and into our stomachs. These receptors are all connected to the part of the brain known as "the pleasure zone."
  • Food manufacturers are fiddling with the structure of fat globules, affecting their absorption rates, and increasing the allure by improving what is known in the industry as "mouthfeel."

Moss explains that companies know that by formulating the amounts of salt, sugar, and fat in their products, and by marketing foods in right ways, consumers will bite — literally — and profits will soar. He says even when food manufacturers try to do right by consumer health initiatives (such as reducing salt or fat content), there's push back from Wall Street because profits aren't as high.

Perhaps through these rebates, consumers will purchase healthier foods in greater quantities, thereby encouraging manufacturers to adhere to better food formulas. But that may still be a tall order, because, as Jon Stewart put it, "If a banana and an apple are cheaper maybe I wouldn't eat a Yodel ... but holy **** are Yodels tasty!" Readers, would you forgo the Yodels if you had a coupon for apples or a discount on your health insurance? Sound off in the comments below.

Front page photo credit: Trusted Health Products
Photo credits top to bottom: CNSEF
and Humans Are Not Broken

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1 comment
Michael Moss is preaching to the choir when it comes to me. I have been preaching the Salt, Sugar, Fat addiction to my family and friends for about a decade. So far mostly what its got me is "here we go again". I will pass this link around and hope it provides enough support to my sermon that there will be a few converts.