New research links key marketing factors to quality of food purchases

Breakthrough research by Kusum Ailawadi, professor of Marketing at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth, can change the way companies think about marketing their products to consumers and shows that, contrary to most current corporate marketing approaches, low-sugar products will be on the rise.

The study sends a key message to companies producing sugary food and drink products: there is a huge need to create healthier and more affordable products as an alternative diet. Additionally, the findings reinforce the idea of consumers evolving towards health conscious purchases as a whole.

The research also examines changes in food intake patterns in a household following the diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes in one of its members. Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease strongly linked with the expanding international epidemic of obesity.

In the past, researchers relied on diabetic patients' self-reported records of eating habits and often led to skewed results. The method used by Kusum and her colleagues in collecting data for this study is a first in the industry. Using a scanner that tracks what people buy at the grocery store, they monitored purchases from 40,000 households during a four-year period before and after a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes.

Ailawadi's findings hold importance for marketers, consumers, consumer researchers and public health professionals. Following are some of the key points of the study:

Three main correlations were identified in households subsequent to a diabetes diagnosis:
  • Purchases in sugar and carbohydrate products decreased, while purchases in fat (including processed fats) increased, which could potentially lead to other health issues.
  • Males showed lesser changes in purchasing choices (diet soda and diet juices) than females. Females had broader purchasing cuts across more categories.
  • Changes were broader in younger patients, regardless of gender.
  • The level of a household's education, nutrition interest, and self-control do not seem to affect healthier changes after diabetes diagnosis
The "Health Halo Bias"
  • The study examined people with "high self-control," as defined by healthy practices such as regular exercise and infrequent consumption of fast food or late-night snacks. The self-controllers bought less junk food like sugary cola and potato chips. Yet they offset this benefit with greater quantity of "healthy foods" like yogurt and cereal, leading to greater overall consumption of calories and sugar.
  • This paradox of consuming more because of a perception of healthy attributes is known as the "health halo bias."
This study is the first time the "Health Halo Bias" has been proven on a wide scale (previously it has only been shown within a lab environment).