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NMSU researcher says calorie info may nullify the health effects of a junk food tax

Few people argue that Americans are overweight and don't eat healthy food. While advocates say providing calorie information or taxing junk food may help consumers make better choices, one New Mexico State University researcher says that when the two are combined, they may actually cancel one another out.



Marketing professor Collin Payne poses with a plate of junk food. Payne is currently conducting research on how calorie information nullifies the health effects of a junk food tax on food choice and consumption. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"Policy measures such as providing calorie information and taxing junk food do not affect everyone the same. You need to take into account who you are targeting. It's important to understand all the factors involved," said Collin Payne, an assistant professor in NMSU's College of Business, who studies consumer food behavior. He said when it comes to people who already watch what they eat, additional taxes and food information may not work.

Payne, along with coauthors from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, recently published a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that looked at the combined effects of providing calorie information and taxes on the total number of calories purchased for lunch. During the study, university students chose a meal from a menu three different times –each time the cost of the meal increased by 25 percent. For some students, calorie information was given for the meals, for other students calorie information was absent. The study also looked at the factors of budget and dietary restraint.

"It took taxing the food by 25 percent or more to decrease the selection of less healthy food. Providing calorie information also decreased selection of less healthy foods," Payne said. "Taxing the food, however, didn't seem to change the selection habits of people who already watched what they ate when these people were given calorie information. In fact, these people actually increased – slightly – their choice of less healthy food," he said.

According to Payne, it may be difficult to be vigilant consistently regarding watching what one eats and providing calorie information and higher taxes on certain foods may only increase their desirability leading to their eventual choice and consumption.

"With high-restrained eaters, it seems higher taxes and calorie information aren't going to move behavior that much, but with low-restrained eaters it will," he said. This result suggests that for companies it is important to know their target market.

Payne says further research is needed to better understand the relationship between consumers, taxes and calorie information, including field studies that follow participants at restaurants.

Payne's past research has suggested that trans-generational feeding practices such as "cleaning your plate" at dinner may not be very healthy as in times past because of a serving size that is much larger today, and thus has more calories, than in the past.

He's also found that consumers tend to buy healthier food when shopping carts have a designated place for fruits and vegetables.