Any strategy to address the poor health outcomes associated with obesity needs to grapple with our diet. The marvels of modern, industrialised agriculture, the efficiency of production, picking, processing and packing, and the convenience and vast economies of scale of the national supermarket chains mean that, by historical standards, we have more — and cheaper — food on our plates than ever before. But is it better? That depends, and too often, the answer is no.
Since Vesta’s freeze-dried curries made their first appearance on supermarket shelves in the 60s, ready meals have been a part of this equation.
They generally aren’t very healthy. Nobody thinks they’re healthy either — and perceived health benefits are certainly not why people choose to eat them.
But nevertheless their convenience and affordability make them a great fit for busy lives, hence why they have become such a big element of our national diet — 88 per cent of adults eat ready meals and two in five people do so every week.
Unlike meals prepared at home — where the nutritional value is at the mercy of the taste of the home cook, and whatever happens to be in their fridge — ready meals are controlled. Their ingredients and recipes are standardised from batch to batch, their portion size is consistent; food regulations and guidelines (on ingredients, but also on labelling) apply.
This combination — ready meals are bad enough to be worth fixing, and standardised enough that we can try things out and measure if they work — makes them an intriguing option worth exploration.
As part of Nesta’s new strategic focus on healthy lives, we’re giving some thought to how challenge prizes might be used to make ready meals healthier.
Challenge prizes are a way of promoting innovation. They offer cash incentives (plus often other support) to whoever first or best solves a defined problem. Because they pay out based on results, rather than on promises, they can be far more open to unproven or unorthodox approaches and unusual suspects than other methods: who cares how a solution works, providing it does actually work?
Unlike with grant funding, there’s no need to play it safe because you’re not taking anything on trust: you don’t need to stick to ideas that already have lots of evidence, or incumbents with a long track record; you’re only handing out the funding once they’ve shown real results.
Nesta Challenges have run over 40 challenge prizes and advised on many more for governments and foundations around the world. We have found that challenge prizes work best when the problem they focus on meets a few simple criteria:
Our initial work suggests there are at least two broad approaches to a challenge prize on ready meals that could make sense.
One approach would be to challenge innovators to change ready meals themselves: create new recipes or new ingredients that strip out the calories without changing the taste, so that people end up eating more healthily without needing to make any other changes.
A prize could focus narrowly on food technology, for instance in developing lower-calorie alternatives to fats, sugars or starches in foods; or it could be around creating whole new recipes or tweaking existing products to make them less calorie dense.
Either way, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Measuring calories isn’t enough. To ensure the winner had real world impact we’d also need to make sure the criteria covered what really matters — how it tastes, how it looks, how filling it is, whether it meets with customer resistance. It’s also in the prize’s criteria that we can bake in any other conditions — such as other nutritional requirements or avoiding environmental impact — that we might have.
The other approach we think could work for a prize doesn’t rely on changing the recipes, but on changing consumer behaviour so people — consciously or unconsciously — choose healthier options.
Food retailers — incumbent retailers like supermarkets and convenience stores, but also the new breed of online direct-to-customer ready-meal delivery services like COOK — have many levers at their disposal to change consumer choice, ranging from packaging to promotions, and from advertising to the way that they display products on their shelves or websites.
But while plenty of healthier options exist there’s not that much incentive for retailers to experiment with approaches that gently guide consumers to make healthier choices.
A challenge prize focused on scaling approaches to adoption of healthier ready meals (for instance, with a reward for hitting a particular sales target for a healthy ready meal) would be an interesting approach, creating enough of a prompt for them to invest time and effort. This is less traditional territory for prizes, but not entirely uncharted: previous prizes that have taken this approach include the Million Cool Roofs Challenge.
Food is complicated. It’s tied up in culture, behaviour and preference, not just health. There are lots of moving parts, huge scope for unintended consequences and innovation isn’t always what’s needed. And even where it is, we want to focus Nesta’s work on actually making a big difference.
As we explore further whether challenge prizes are indeed a useful approach to take with our healthy lives mission, we want to hear different perspectives to shape our thinking.
In particular, we’d like to explore what the specific barriers and opportunities are around innovation and from anyone interested in partnering with us to make this happen.
Over to you. We'd like to hear your views on the criteria. If you think there’s potential for challenge prizes to innovate ready meals — or if you think we should turn our focus elsewhere — we’re keen to hear from you.