Grocery stores may influence people to be healthier

To encourage healthier buying habits, it may be possible to restrict grocery store placements of unhealthy items and increase the availability of healthier options in these stores. These are the findings of two new studies published in PLOSMedicine, by Carmen Piernas (University of Oxford), UK.

The UK is currently failing to meet its dietary targets for saturated fats, dietary fiber, sugar and salt intake. Poor diets are a major risk factor for chronic disease. There are many socioeconomic inequalities when it comes to diet. Although systematic reviews have shown that grocery store interventions can be effective in changing diets, evidence from real grocery stores is lacking.

The researchers conducted a new study that evaluated six interventions to increase the availability, promotion, signage, and placement of healthier products in three major UK grocery store chains. The researchers found that purchasing behavior changed significantly when healthier options were available in a particular category. Low-fat chips were less popular than regular chips in intervention stores (-23% vs. -4% in control shops, p=0.001). Stocking lower-calorie biscuits led to an 18% increase in sales and a 4% decrease in the purchase of regular, high-calorie biscuits.

Piernas, along with colleagues, evaluated a grocery store intervention that removed seasonal chocolates from prominent locations in a major UK supermarket over the seven weeks leading to Easter. Free-standing displays of seasonal chocolate confectionery products in 34 intervention stores were removed. However, the candies could still be found elsewhere in the store. Researchers found that there was a decrease in seasonal increases in confectionery sales. Units of confectionery sales rose by 18% in control stores, but fell by only 5% in intervention stores. (p0.001). There was an absolute difference of confectionery sales between intervention and control stores, approximately 21 kilograms per store per semaine. This translated into fewer calories in customers’ baskets.

The papers provide new evidence that legislation can influence consumers’ diets in order to improve their health. The authors state that this research is important for governments and retailers to develop policies to improve dietary intakes in line with recommendations for good health. Strategies aimed at informing customers about healthier options will not work alone.

Piernas comments on the first study. “The Government in England has announced new legislation to restrict promotions of foods high in sugars, salt and saturated fat (HFSS) in prominent locations. This project established a partnership with a large UK food retailer to evaluate an intervention to remove seasonal chocolate confectionery from prominent areas of the store, specifically end-of-aisles and entrance areas, over 7 weeks before the Easter period. These results from a ‘real world’ intervention provide promising evidence that the proposed legislation in England to restrict promotions of less healthy items in prominent locations may help reduce over-consumption.”

Piernas comments on the second study: “In this multi-retailer partnership, we conducted an independent evaluation of six in-store interventions within three major UK food retailers aimed at improving food purchasing behaviours. We reported that some choice architecture interventions implemented within stores, such as availability and promotions, were associated with short-term changes in food purchasing behaviours. However, the effect of promotions on consumer behaviour may diminish with time and are less likely to be sustainable for retailers over longer time periods.”

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