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Changing the way we order takeaways: how food apps use psychology to impact our health

Changing the way we order takeaways: how food apps use psychology to impact our health

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Filippo Bianchi, Sohum Patel, Lauren Bowes Byatt, Nesta

Platforms such as Deliveroo, UberEats and Just Eat have become influential drivers of Britain’s food consumption. The use of online food delivery apps has skyrocketed over the course of the pandemic with no sign of slowing down in the post-lockdown era. Meanwhile, obesity rates are increasing, with about three in five adults in England now being overweight or obese.

Establishing a direct impact between delivery apps and obesity can be challenging. But a recent World Health Organisation report suggests that food delivery apps may play a role in fuelling Britain’s obesity crisis, as food served by restaurants and takeaways tends to come in larger portions and be more energy dense than food prepared at home.

The origins of the issue

Traditionally, the narrative around obesity emphasised the role of the individual. A focus on personal responsibility has shaped obesity policy over the last decade. However, a 2019 report by Kantar showed that 38% of UK adults were already trying to lose weight “most of the time”. So what prevents us from turning our good intentions into action?

Behavioural sciences that study human behaviour suggest that the environment we live in strongly contributes to the gap that exists between our intentions and our actions. This isn’t a new idea. Even in 2007, the Government’s Tackling Obesity report highlighted the importance of focussing on the built environment in tackling obesity.

Having many fast food outlets in our local area, the constant advertising of unhealthy foods and price promotions for larger portions are just a few examples of the environmental factors that make it difficult to stick to our health goals. The silver lining is that reshaping environments holds much promise in improving the health of the population.

With the explosion of e-commerce, this concept could apply not just to physical environments, such as high streets and supermarkets, but also to digital environments, such as food delivery apps.

“Having many fast food outlets in a local area, constant advertising of unhealthy foods and price promotions for larger portions are just a few examples of the environmental factors that make it difficult to stick to our health goals. The silver lining is that reshaping environments holds much promise in improving the health of the population.”

Behavioural science and technology

So could food delivery apps encourage healthier options? After all, the Deliveroos of the world would rather be known for contributing to our nation’s health than its rising obesity.

Like many tech companies, online delivery platforms use clever techniques to encourage us to order more frequently (through regular notifications and time-critical “special” deals) and to increase the amount we order (through multi-buy promotions, frequent-ordering discounts, “meal deal” packages).

These techniques are called nudges and are designed to encourage us to purchase foods that we might not have considered otherwise. However, just as these nudges can encourage over-ordering, they could also be used to encourage healthier orders, without removing the option for the occasional treat.

Restaurants offering a greater proportion of healthy products could be displayed more prominently on app’s home pages. Or healthy swaps could be suggested to consumers using delivery apps. These features would make it easy for consumers to identify healthier options.

Importantly, such strategies would not limit our choices. We would remain free to make our own decision on what to purchase. But they would go some way to counteract the marketing forces that push us to over-consume.

Profits or health: a false dichotomy

Although industry may well (very reasonably) argue that its core responsibility is to maximise profits for investors, health and profits need not be mutually exclusive.

Behavioural sciences could help to find ways of shifting consumer demands towards healthier products whilst maintaining demand for delivery app services. Small changes to how food is presented on delivery apps could support and motivate us to swap less healthy for healthier options, without having to give up deliveries altogether.

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These initiatives could be designed in ways that deliberately take into account the commercial needs of delivery apps. For example, suggesting swaps for products that are healthier and within similar profit margins could help to realign consumer health goals with the commercial goals of delivery apps and restaurants.

How change could be implemented

Naturally, delivery apps and restaurants would not want to be restricted in the way they market their food.

Whilst there is good evidence on what works to promote healthier food options, there is an outstanding question regarding how to encourage delivery apps to support health-promoting initiatives. So how can we practically ensure that nudges are used for health in the long term?

One idea could be for the Government to set up a rating system, comparing delivery apps on the healthiness of their offerings and on the techniques they use to promote healthy (or unhealthy) options.

This would be difficult to quantify but not impossible: which restaurants are displayed first? What is the proportion of healthier restaurants on the platform? Are customers nudged to select super-sized portions or additional unhealthy foods at checkout?

Such a rating system could be used to create a public ranking of the healthiest delivery apps, which could serve three purposes:

  • support people to identify and use apps that provide more healthy food options
  • incentivise apps to implement health-promoting initiatives, given that most adults in England want to get healthier
  • make the nudges used in industry more transparent to consumers

Delivery apps have a huge potential to impact the health of this nation. Re-aligning the profit-seeking goals of delivery apps with the health-seeking goals of consumers can result in a win-win situation for all involved.

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