Life insurance company will pay you to eat your vegetables

John Hancock Insurance Company Offering Incentives for Healthy Eaters
John Hancock Insurance Company Offering Incentives for Healthy Eaters

If you get your insurance from the company John Hancock, you ; want to put down that Twinkie. On Wednesday, the insurance provider announced plans for a program which incentivizes policyholders to make "healthy food choices." It's the first of its kind in the U.S., and according to the company, their new Vitality HealthyFood program will give customers, "real-time discounts and/or cash-back up to $600 a year on their grocery bills, and program points that lead to savings on their annual premiums—as much as 15 percent." All in exchange for giving up a healthy dose of your privacy.

This Big Brother-like initiative is an extension of an existing John Hancock program that offers rewards for activities like exercise, completing annual health screenings, and getting flu shots. While on the surface it's easy to say that encouraging people to eat well is a worthy goal, it's more complicated than that since there's no uniform standard for what constitutes an objectively good diet.

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The insurer doesn't specify exactly what it will be encouraging people to consume—or how exactly it will enforce the plan—but it does says it will offer its customers access to guidance and resources in collaboration with the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Presumably the main point of the program is to get people to eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods, but it raises a larger question: should a company really be trying to dictate what we eat? And should people be penalized if they aren't successful at modifying their eating habits?

This is not the first time an insurance company has tried to incentivize good behavior, of course. A similar program offered by an insurer in South Africa had some success in getting its policyholders to opt for healthier foods. And other U.S. health insurance companies have long been rewarding exercise by offering discounts and reimbursements for gym memberships, and many plans also offer support for smoking cessation and weight loss. Auto insurers have recently implemented a slightly more invasive rewards program: they put a device in your car to monitor your driving habits and offer you discounted premiums based on how safe your behavior is.

The John Hancock program—like the auto insurance trackers—will generate endless data about some of their customers most intimate habits. They've already been giving people the option to track their physical activity with Fitbits and other devices, and now they'll be monitoring your purchases at any of the 16,000 stores which are participating in the program. While their intentions for this data may be good (if self-serving) for now, it's worrisome to think about where we'll be if they someday decided to flip things and start penalizing people for making "unhealthy" choices.

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