Supermarket temptations

You’re heading for the supermarket to do the weekly shopping. Maybe you are the meticulous type with a complete purchase list of healthy foods with no room for a spontaneous diversion to the junk food area. All I can say is lucky you! However, judging by the shelf-space dedicated to snack foods in many supermarkets around the world you must be in a minority. Or maybe you live in New Zealand. Let me show you some brand new research results.

How the research was done

Snack food exposure (Photo: Scott Ableman)

Snack food exposure (Photo: Scott Ableman)

Researchers in eight countries coordinated by an Australian university measured the length of snack food aisles in 170 supermarkets. The measures were adjusted to account for overall shop size to make the comparison fairer. Since there is no universal definition of snack foods, the researchers looked for food and beverage items often consumed outside of the three main meals and considered high in energy, high in sodium, and low in micronutrients. Items covered by their definition included potato and corn chips (called crisps in some countries) but not savoury crackers or pretzels, chocolate (either as chocolate bars, blocks, boxes or bags), candy confectionery (excluding mints and chewing gum) and both diet and regular soft drinks (soda).

They found that each of these product types were easily identified in distinct sections in most supermarkets, and were readily available in the eight included countries as they are part of a typical Western-style eating pattern. The countries covered by the study were Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, United Kingdom, and United States of America.

As some sort of health index they also compared the shelf-space dedicated to snack foods with the shelf-space of fresh fruits and vegetables in each of the supermarkets.

High but variable exposure to snack foods everywhere

The overall results might not be particularly surprising to any of us. Although there were considerable variations observed between the countries studied, the results indicated high levels of snack food and soft drink displays within supermarkets across the eight countries. Exposure to snack foods was largely unavoidable within all the supermarkets, with the intention one suspects of increasing the likelihood of purchases and particularly those made impulsively.

If you live in the United Kingdom you are faced with the largest temptations. Adjusted for total store size, supermarkets in the UK sample had the greatest aisle length dedicated to chips, chocolate and confectionery as well as the greatest total snack food aisle length of 56.4 m. On the other end was New Zealand with “only” 21.7 m dedicated to snack foods. Somewhat surprising, the snack food mecca of the United States of America came towards the bottom of snack foods aisle length with an average of 32.7 m. However, if ice cream and biscuits had been included in the tally, which they were not, I am sure normal order would have been restored.

Supermarkets in the North American countries (Canada and the US) had a greater proportion of their snack food aisle length dedicated to chips. Compared to other countries, the UK sample had a higher proportion of total snack food shelf length allocated to chocolate while the greatest proportion of shelf length allocated to confectionery was found within the Swedish sample. Soft drinks were less prominent as a proportion of total snack food aisle length in the Swedish and UK supermarkets. Aisle length of soft drinks was greatest in the Australian sample and Australia came an overall second in the combined snack foods league with an average aisle length of 45.8 m.

Health food index

Balancing the good with the bad (Photo: Muammerokumus)

Balancing the good with the bad (Photo: Muammerokumus)

The winner in the health food league was Canada. The Canadian supermarkets had a snack foods to fruit and vegetables ratio of 0.33. Stores in the Danish and the UK samples had the highest ratio of snack foods to fruit and vegetables with a ratio of 1.46 and 1.31 respectively.

Any healthy attempts in Australian supermarkets were negated by almost universal presentations of  snack foods and soft drinks at checkouts and end-of-aisle displays tempting hungry customers waiting in the line to pay. As a matter of fact a majority of supermarkets in most countries had checkouts featuring snack foods or soft drinks with the exception of the Netherlands where less than half of the supermarkets had such displays.

So what is the message from the study?

Consumption of energy-dense snack foods and soft drinks have been implicated as contributing to weight gain and obesity. Question is how influential is access to these items within supermarkets?

There are clear differences in dietary behaviour and obesity rates across developed countries, but from the study availability of chocolate and candy items appeared to have little effect on a country’s rate of obesity. The US and New Zealand for example both rank in the top countries with the highest obesity rates of 33% and 28%, respectively, but have far smaller candy and chocolate aisles than the UK with an obesity rate of 26.9%.

The relatively low prominence of snack food in supermarkets in both the Netherlands (checkouts in particular) and New Zealand suggest that lessons about the reduction of such displays may be learnt from these countries.

Maybe the culprit is not only opportunity but the combination of opportunity and a lack of self-control. Eating too much of a good thing is always bad. I feel guilty already.

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