Stimulating healthy food choices using virtual reality at the Weekend of Science

Published on October 14 2019 –  at the Weekend of Science, ACHC-researcher Eline Smit and her ASCoR colleague Marijn Meijers investigated whether environmental appeals can be used to stimulate healthy food choices. Children and their parents could shop in a virtual reality supermarket (VirtuMart; developed by Nynke van der Laan – Tilburg University) during the event. When participants picked up a product in the supermarket, the health or environmental impact of the product was metaphorically displayed in a pop-up. For example, when picking up biscuits that contained palm oil, participants would see destroyed rainforest, whereas when picking up biscuits that were palm oil free, a pristine rainforest was displayed. Participants were very enthusiastic about the experience.

 Environmental concern is increasing and healthy food choices are in some cases also environmentally friendly. Therefore, Eline and Marijn were curious to learn whether environmental appeals in virtual environment might be just as effective, or maybe even more effective, in stimulating virtual food choices. They studied this by making use of a virtual reality supermarket, where participants are transported into a virtual supermarket and the virtual shopping experience is more likely to resemble a real life shopping experience.

Although the data of the study are not analyzed yet, there are some interesting anecdotal insights to share. To start, most of the participants were children and they were very enthusiastic about the virtual reality experience. Some were so immersed that they even forgot that they were attached to wires or asked for multiple rounds in the virtual reality supermarket. Furthermore, age was an important factor in whether the participants were able to understand the pop-ups. For example, whereas young children would report having seen “monkeys” (orangutans in the rainforest), older children were better able to explicate that they saw orangutans in different settings, for example a pristine rainforest, a moderately destroyed rainforest, or a completely destroyed rainforest. Once children understood the meaning of the pop-ups (containing messages that palm oil is not good for one’s health and the environment), they were more likely to indicate that they would opt for palm oil free products.

Read more about the Weekend of Science here.