What Food Policies do Consumers Like and Dislike?

I have a new working paper with Vincenzina Caputo in which we elicit consumers’ preferences for 13 different food policies. Here’s our main motivation (references removed for readability).

A variety of food policies have been proposed, and in some cases enacted, in an effort to improve public health, environmental outcomes, or food security. Proposed actions include a spectrum of policies ranging from fiscal incentives/disincentives, bans, labelling programs, and passive policies such as subsides and investments in education. What food policy proposals do consumers prefer? While there have been numerous studies aimed at calculating the welfare effects of individual food policies it is difficult to easily ascertain the relative preferability of numerous policy options, even those that have the same objective (e.g., “fat taxes” and nutritional education both aim to improve public health).

We conducted a nationwide survey of 1,056 U.S. consumers who were asked to indicate the relative desirability of the following food policies.


Rather than use a traditional approach, where respondents are not required to make trade-offs between policies (e.g., people can approve of all policies or rank all policies as “very important”), we used the “best worst scaling” approach that requires respondents to make trade-offs. The approach requires respondents to answer a series of questions like the one below, where for each question, they have to indicate their most and least preferred policies.


The results are analyzed using a choice model that allows for preference heterogeneity. The main outcomes are below, reported as “preference shares” - i.e., the percent of people predicted to choose each policy as most preferable. Results indicate the highest levels of support for investments in agricultural research and requirements of food and agricultural literacy standards in public education. Fat, calorie, and soda taxes are the least popular. These preference shares provide a measure of intensity of preference in a population. Funding for agricultural research is 14%/8% = 1.75 times more preferable than symbolic nutritional labeling.


While the above results are useful in providing intensity of relative preferences, they do not indicate whether people would actually vote in favor of a policy. The table below shows the results of that question; the results largely align with the best-worse scaling approach. Fewer than one-third of respondents are in favor of these three tax policies.


There are a number of significant demographic correlates with policy preferences. Some are not surprising. For example, Nutrition Assistance (or SNAP) is more desirable to lower income vs. higher income households and Democrats vs. Republicans. As another example, soda taxes are less desirable among lower income households.

Funding for agricultural research was generally supported across all demographic categories except for age: older individuals were more supportive of funding for agricultural research than younger individuals.