Policy makers must collect more high quality data to evaluating the effectiveness of current healthy eating campaigns if future strategies are to be successful, say researchers behind the EATWELL project.
The EU-funded project aims to provide European Member States with best practice guidelines to develop appropriate policy interventions that will encourage healthy eating across Europe.
Speaking at the 5th Annual European Public Health Conference in Malta, researchers presented findings from the project – explaining that after gathering information on nutrition policy interventions in EU countries the team grouped them according to a simple classification scheme.
This classification scheme contained five measures designed to educate and inform – advertising controls, public information campaigns, nutrition education, nutrition labelling, nutritional information on menus – and six interventionist measures designed to change the market – fiscal measures to the population at large, fiscal measures targeting disadvantaged consumers, availability measures for disadvantaged consumers, food reformulation, regulation of school meals, regulation of workplace meals.
The project findings also suggest while many EU countries have invested in national policy campaigns that fit into the above criteria, very few of such policies have been evaluated for their impact in changing actual behaviour.
“We have studied evaluations of these interventions carried out by Member States and in the academic literature and have performed further evaluations within the project.
“According to criteria we establish for sound policy evaluation, very few evaluations meet the grade,” the report says.
“After summarising the evidence for each individual policy type in this document, the most common recommendation we make is for more and better evidence to be collected.”
The EU-backed project looked at 111 national-level interventions, and then conducted analysis of secondary data sets to assess the impact of the policy.
This showed, for example, that the UK Food Standards Agency’s salt campaign in 2004 resulted in a 10% reduction of salt intake on average in the UK population.
Similarly, a project analysis of the 5-a-day fruit and vegetables campaign in the UK, which started in 2003 found a significant increase in fruit and vegetable intakes between 0.2 and 0.7 portions per day.
“We used secondary data to carry out our own analyses of these initiatives. Continued evaluation of finished, on-going and new interventions is necessary to form an even better picture of the impact of policies on actual eating behaviour,” explained project coordinator Professor Bruce Traill, from the University of Reading.
Based on the evaluations of these 111 policies, in addition to an online survey of over 3,000 and interviews with European citizens the researchers have now made recommendations aimed at helping the development of future policies.
For example, the team found that of the 111 policies, 82 support informed choice by providing information or education as defined by the five listed categories.
Traill and his team said such policies have ‘small but positive effects’ on healthy eating, and may be of benefit because they are relatively cheap, generally cost-effective and accepted by the public.
“However, it’s also important to take into account here that informed choice does not necessarily equal making a healthier choice; many factors influence what people ultimately choose to eat,” Traill added.
The remaining policies fell into the six interventionist categories designed to change the market. The research coordinator added that such measures have the potential to bring about substantial changes in food choices and off-set the social costs of unhealthy diets, however, he noted that data on the effectiveness of these policies is currently lacking.
“Fiscal interventions to promote healthy eating are highly cost-effective,” he said. “The precise nature of any tax should be informed by the careful evaluation of recent measures in Denmark, France, Finland and Hungary, whilst the revenues generated should be ring-fenced for use on other cost-effective measures to encourage healthier diets.”