LOS ANGELES — Today’s double cheeseburger is tomorrow’s weight problem, and that’s why your phone has become a weapon in the clash between public health and private enterprise.
Researchers from the University of Southern California and MIT are using large-scale mobility data to track people’s eating behaviors throughout the day to understand how food choice is influenced by what is accessible, available and affordable.
This knowledge derived from big data can help health officials find solutions for people who eat poorly not because of moral failure, but rather because they live in so-called “food deserts”. where there is little access to healthy and affordable food, and “food swamps”, where what is available might as well be mud.
“On the face of it, we really didn’t blow anyone away when we found that if you go to more fast food, you eat more fast food,” Abigail Horn, who specializes in food systems and nutrition issues for USC’s Information Science Institute, told the Daily Beast. “The most interesting finding is that, when you look at health outcomes, people who live in neighborhoods with the highest rates of fast food attendance have significantly higher rates of obesity and diabetes. students.”
But at the same time, other experts said, fast food outlets whose greasy and salty offerings make Americans fat are already using personal data collection as part of their efforts to market more aggressively to consumers. – and a main target could be the least resistant. to her.
Horn added: “If you look at public health funding and then food industry funding, it’s not fair game.”
Crisis in full view
For Southern California’s national reputation as a haven for health freaks and fitness enthusiasts, statistics show that its weight-related wellness issues closely trail the rest of the nation. According to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 1 in 10 adults in Los Angeles County have type 2 diabetes, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 11.3% of American adults have diabetes. There is a higher percentage of overweight people – with a body mass index between 25 and 29.9 – in Los Angeles (35.9% vs. 35.2% nationally). Nevertheless, obesity – when the BMI is 30 and above – is less prevalent in Los Angeles County than in America as a whole: 23.5% to 28.9%.
Diet-related chronic diseases, such as obesity and diabetes, are closely associated with food insecurity, which is the lack of reliable access to nutritious and affordable food. Each year, food insecurity costs the county about $2.3 billion in health expenditures, Dipa Shah, director of the nutrition and physical activity program at the county’s public health department, told The Daily Beast.
These ugly numbers explain why scientists are so interested in whether Big Data can find answers to improve health. For Horn’s research, data was gathered from a county public health survey of more than 8,000 adults, as well as mobility data from nearly 243,000 smartphone users. Over a six-month period in 2016-2017, there were 14.5 million visits to various food outlets.
In another study by Horn and others, the menus of more than 500 chain restaurants were scoured for nutritional information, with the results then mapped across the county. Horn said the data clearly showed that the least nutritious restaurants could be found everywhere — a county-wide swamp — but the most nutritious were only in the wealthiest neighborhoods.
It’s systemic inequalities like these, Shah said, that have led to higher rates of food insecurity, obesity and diabetes among low-income residents and racial minorities.
“It is clear that residents of the Mid, South and East Los Angeles and Antelope Valley neighborhoods have much higher rates of fast food visits than those in West LA and South Bay. It’s a health issue, and we’re seeing higher rates of diet-related illnesses in those areas,” Horn said. “But that’s also why we have to be careful not to stigmatize fast food because it’s a big part of people’s food source. for the inhabitants of these areas: 15 to 20% of all their food visits. »
Go where the people are
Under the Obama administration, the Federal Healthy Foods Funding Initiative sought to address inequities in food access by helping grocers and developers who wanted to open or expand stores in these deserts and swamps. The program, launched in 2010, has awarded $270 million in grants and leveraged about $1 billion in additional funding.
Yet the results have been mixed, with a study conducted by the RAND Corporation finding that neighborhoods with these interventions saw net positive changes in overall dietary quality, particularly with added sugars, but people did not eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, nor improve their BMI.
That’s when it became clear that when it comes to where to buy food, the focus should be on where people go during the day and not just where they sleep at night. Now attention can be focused, for example, on office parks, where many people work, with perhaps the only lunch options being vending machines and/or a snack.
“It’s a huge value of mobility data because previous research has really focused on their neighborhoods or maybe a mile around their home,” Horn said.
Horn and co-author Esteban Moro, data scientist from Spain’s Carlos III University and visiting professor at MIT, continued their initial study by taking a larger sample of data from the same source over the same time period: 1.86 million users in 11 US cities. Among the findings were that when people left their homes to shop, they walked an average distance of a quarter mile; yet when they frequented a fast food outlet, they were on average 4.1 miles from home.
So why do people choose an establishment selling trash over a healthier option? Consider workers at the aforementioned office park, where just getting from your office to your car and driving off the lot can take 10 minutes. If pressed for time, a priority would be to find a place that puts the “fast” in fast food. In other cases, people in a new lunch spot might seek out the familiar rather than taking risks in unfamiliar establishments.
This information is invaluable in identifying people’s eating habits and laying the groundwork for solutions that inspire people to adopt healthier behaviors. But they also point out that junk food vendors are deploying the same Big Data researchers do to attract new customers and retain customers for seconds.
Convenience, but at what cost?
Mobile apps for restaurants have grown in popularity in recent years, especially with the pandemic prompting the combination of convenience with contactless ordering and pickup. If you have such an application, you can quickly find a restaurant in an unfamiliar place, as well as receive discounts, bonuses for many orders and free items on your birthday.
All the while, of course, your phone is collecting data and sending it back to the mothership.
“These apps are a boon for businesses,” Fran Fleming-Milici, director of marketing initiatives at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health, told The Daily Beast. “You can send reminders and special offers, you can geotag yourself – and they’re better than third-party apps, like Uber Eats, because you don’t have to pay to advertise there.”
Clever developers have even found ways to “gamify” their apps through things like achievements and leveling up.
On that last point, it seems like a great way to market to teenagers – and fast food companies probably think so too.
According to Fleming-Milici, 70% of teens reported engaging with food/drink brands on social media, with 35% engaging with five or more brands. More than half (54%) said they engage with fast food brands.
“Even though we don’t have evidence that companies are doing this more to teens than other consumers, when it comes to teens, they still have developing cognitive abilities,” Fleming-Milici said. “They are therefore less likely to be able to defend themselves against this type of marketing technique than adults.”
But why don’t we have this proof? Because fast food providers want it that way.
“What’s interesting is that it’s proprietary, so you can’t really study what companies are doing,” Fleming-Milici said. “But they know what they’re doing, and it’s really difficult for public health.”
Horn knows that making changes for the better won’t be easy or quick, in terms of generations. But taking rash steps would be worse.
“We’re not going to force McDonald’s to change their menu,” she said. “It would only upset millions and millions of people.