KANSAS CITY, MO. - Fresh produce consumption has been stagnant for years. The Brentwood, Mo.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation believes behavioral science can help get to the root of that problem and convince Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Two PBH officials — Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, president and CEO; and Jason Riis, chief behavioral scientist — made their case in a June 17 workshop during United Fresh Live!, the United Fresh Produce Association’s virtual equivalent of its annual trade show.

In “The Feelings and Habits that Accelerate Fruit and Vegetable Consumption: Delivering on the Desires and Demands of Consumers,” Kapsak and Riis said that by tapping into consumers’ emotions and turning their behaviors into habits, produce consumption could finally start to tick up.

“People are only eating half of their recommended fruits and vegetables per day,” Kapsak said. “They know they need to eat more to improve their health. Research also shows it can improve their happiness. Over the last year we’ve been on a journey to get people inspired to want to eat produce more often.”

In 2017, PBH began looking at behavioral science and psychological literature to understand more about people’s emotional connections with fruits and vegetables. Most people know that produce is good for their long-term health. What the latest research points out is that it’s also good short-term, by immediately improving happiness, appealing to consumers’ pride or making other emotional impacts.

Of course, the more produce consumers eat, the easier it is for them to start appreciating the benefits. And for that, Riis said, they need to turn their produce consumption into a habit.

“Forty-three percent of what people do every day is done while thinking of something else — it’s a habit, it’s automatic,” he said. “Half of fruit and vegetable behaviors are done habitually, and there is lots for us to learn about that.”

Forming habits

For a behavior to develop into a habit, several things are required, Riis said. It’s best if it happens in a similar context, e.g. the same time and place. It must be repeated extensively, and there must be some element of reward or enjoyment involved.

“The lack of new habit formation can be part of what stalls consumption rises,” Riis said. “The key to creating new habits is repetition, which leads to automaticity, which is the defining character of habit.”

As an example, Riis cited the making of a tossed salad for dinner. Many ingredients and actions are typically involved to make a salad. Add to that outside distractions (kids, for example), and it becomes a formidable challenge to produce just that one element of dinner — unless, that is, you’ve done it so often, and enjoyed the payoff, that it becomes automatic and you make it mostly without thinking about it, while doing other things.

Grocery retailers and their supplier partners, Riis said, can play a critical role in helping consumers build those habits.  Is produce easy for consumers to remember to buy? Does it always taste the same? Can it always be found in the same place at the store? Does it look the same?

“Merchandising becomes critical” to habit formation, Riis said.

Once those habits are formed, they’re hard to break. In one study, Riis said, more than 80% of parents reported that, after 14 days, their kids ate more of a certain fruit or vegetable than they did at the beginning of the two-week experiment — even if, at the outset, it wasn’t even a fruit or vegetable that they actually liked.

“It’s well-known by nutritionists but underappreciated by consumers: exposure is more important than palatability,” Riis said.

And psychology plays a crucial role, too, he added. Kids who are praised for eating their fruits and vegetables will eat more of them.

Here’s another tip to get kids to eat more fruits and veggies: create what Kapsak calls “first consumption” opportunities. For instance, some school systems have experimented with handing out kids cut bell peppers or other items while they wait in the school lunch line. The result? A six-fold increase in consumption in some districts.

Kapsak begins his own day by cutting up fresh produce and feeding it to his young children. Members of the Kapsak household also munch on produce while they’re preparing dinner or waiting for takeout to arrive.

“It becomes part of the meal experience,” he said.

As much as PBH and other produce and health industry members already know about what it takes to get consumers to eat more fresh fruits and veggies, they’re really only scratching the surface, Riis said.

“We know a little about them, but fruit and vegetable habits have been understudied. We’re looking for that next layer of detail, and hope to present 50 of these ideas in a year or two.”

More fruits for breakfast, more in desserts. Vegetables moving from the side of the dinner plate to the main course. The ideas are endless, and PBH and others hope to back them up with hard behavioral “proof” in the coming months and years.

“These are things that can happen almost automatically,” he said.

PBH also found that the more days per week that consumers ate fresh produce, the more they consumed within each of those days. And if people ate fruits and veggies every day, they were likely to eat them at most meals.

Creating moments

One key to increase consumption, Kapsak said, is to “create more fruit and veggie moments” in consumers’ lives. If more people knew that the latest research shows that produce consumption can improve not only your physical health but also your level of happiness, that task could me considerably easier.

“Over the last year we’ve been on a journey to feel inspired to want to eat fruit and vegetables more often,” Kapsak said. “ In 2017 we started looking at behavioral science and psychological literature that showed that consumers could feel immediate emotional satisfaction from eating fruits and veggies.”

And the fact that many of those reported more personal happiness in the short term provides a whole new opportunity for the produce industry to explore, she added.

“Not to focus only on long term health benefits but on the here and now.”

Kapsak characterizes PBH’s new approach as a “know, feel, do” framework, with the aim of “closing an intention action gap.”

“It gets into routines, plans and hopefully habits,” she said. “We’re shifting from knowledge — which, yes, is very important — to also considering feeling and doing, tapping into emotional connections.”

Emotion is the fabric of life, Riis pointed out — the average human spends at least 90% of their day in an emotional state that is either prominent or at least in the background. And, he added, there is such a wide variety of emotions associated with fruit and veggie consumption.

“It’s not just enjoyment. There’s pride, relaxation. It can be shared and talked about, and that sharing is incredibly important. Pride can lead to greater perseverance in the face of a tedious task, like eating fruits and veggies.”

Reaching more than 1.5 million consumers daily, PBH’s efforts are now transitioning to a new phase, launched in the spring, to elevate new fruit and vegetables behaviors as a “national and people-focused activity,” as Kapsak calls it.

“With the pandemic, there’s a chance to connect with consumers in a new and meaningful way and hopefully spur consumption,” she said.

To accomplish the elusive goal of increasing produce consumption, Riis said the industry would do well to remember a famous maxim of economist Richard Thaler: if you want people to do something, you have to make it easy for them.

“That’s not just an offhand remark: it’s how he won a Nobel Prize, for versions of that idea,” Riis said. “It’s a fundamental idea in economics. The problem is, it’s a great quote but it’s not easy to do. We have to get better at it.”

Businesses need to identify the person on their staff who will own the task of making things easier for the company’s customers, Riis said.

This story was featured in the August issue of Supermarket Perimeter. Check out the full issue here.