A recent University of Auckland study has found that discounts on healthy food causes shoppers to buy more fruit and vegetables, even when the discounts have been removed.

The University of Auckland study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last month, showed the importance of regulatory intervention in fresh produce sales as a addition to nutritional education.

Two groups of shoppers were selected, 1,104 in total. A randomised selection were given 12.5% discounts on healthy foods including fruit and vegetables, with another randomized group being sent monthly food nutrition education packs, based on their shopping record.

After a six month period, those who had received discounts were buying 11% more healthy food per week than before the study began.

This amounted to an average of 480 grams of fruit and vegetables every week. The discounts were then removed.

After a further six months the amount had dropped to 380 grams, but still represented a change in buying behaviour from before the study. The nutrition education, in contrast, made no impact on buying behaviour.

The lead researcher, Dr Cliona Ni Mhurchu, said she was surprised by the fact that nutrition education did not improve food choices, especially since previous research had shown positive effects. However, the majority of those studies relied on self-report rather than the objective supermarket sales data.

Her study participants were typically more informed and interested in healthy eating than the average person, which could have made the impact of the education less apparent, she said.

Ni Mhurchu said the price cuts represented the effect that removal of taxes on healthy foods would have, adding that such regulatory intervention deserved more attention, along with possibilities such as subsidies on healthier foods.

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