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Obesity: involving consumers in the definition of new food policies

It is essential for consumers to be closely involved in initial consultative processes on, and then the development of, food policies, in order to restore a form of collective sovereignty over our food choices, and to overcome the failures of consumer sovereignty.

International Farm Machinery Show 2003 in Paris. © INRA, MAITRE Christophe
Updated on 10/08/2013
Published on 09/26/2013

Despite information campaigns, obesity is increasing in France

It is evident that the rise in numbers of overweight and obese individuals is the price we have to pay for the ever-increasing abundance of food. Social inequalities in obesity have to some extent revealed the the trade-offs made by consumers between pleasure and health: why give up promises of “low-cost” food pleasure when the future offers no opportunities and not particularly pleasant living conditions?  The efforts we make to invest in our health, as suggested by the campaigns promoting nutritional guidelines, depend first of all on what we can hope to gain from switching to healthy food habits.
Despite this, governments must not abandon their regulatory ambitions regarding diet and health, by assuming that consumers are sovereign and that the market perfectly satisfies their needs and wants.  In fact, our choices between pleasure and health are often plagued by errors in perception, rationality biases and cognitive limitations.  Food marketing leads us to eat more than we think and need.  The chronic consumption of fatty and sweet products shapes our preferences and conditions our subsequent choices, in the same way as an addiction.  Finally, our dietary environment tips the balance in favour of pleasure and a disfavour of health far more than we would like.

Different policies are possible

Policies to regulate the dietary environment could be based on four pillars: 1) nutritional labelling using the traffic light system (green-amber-red) depending on the nutritional profile of foods and shown on the front of pre-packaged foods; 2) a redistribution of foods to different levels of VAT as a function of their nutritional profiles, with clear marking of the VAT rate attributed; 3) strict regulation of marketing systems which encourage an increase in the quantities consumed (promotions, advertising that targets children, etc.) and regulation of the architecture of choices in shops and restaurants, and 4) agri-industrial policies that favour the production of foods that are lower in fat, sugar and added salt.
It is urgent to organise a public debate in France on the future we want for our diet.  Because this concerns the choices they make between pleasure and health, It is essential for consumers to be closely involved in the initial consultative processes  and then the development of public policies so that a form of collective sovereignty can be restored regarding our food choices, and thus overcome the failures of consumer sovereignty.

Scientific contact(s):

  • Fabrice ETILÉ (+33 01 49 59 69 86 ) Nutrition and Social Sciences Research Unit (ALISS) INRA UR 1303
Associated Division(s):
Social Sciences, Agriculture and Food, Rural Development and Environment.
Associated Centre(s):