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Product placement in grocery stores a risk factor for obesity


You step into the grocery store full of good intentions. Fruit, whole-wheat bread, veggies and low-sodium deli meat make up your list of foods to buy. But somehow, you end up leaving the store with bags full of chocolate, pop and pastries.

Your best-laid plans for healthy eating are tossed out the window. Feel guilty?

According to a paper in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine, you aren’t entirely responsible for your unhealthy impulse purchases. Your food environment is also to blame.

Deborah Cohen of RAND Health in Santa Monica, Calif., and Susan Babey of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research write the prominent placement of unhealthy foods in grocery stores is contributing to the obesity epidemic.

“The reality is that food choices are often automatic and made without full conscious awareness,” they note. “In many cases, they may even be the opposite of what the person deciding would consciously prefer.”

The authors argue our food choices are largely influenced by contextual factors, like where a product is placed on a shelf. A 2009 study cited in the article showed products placed on end-aisle displays made up 30 per cent of grocery sales. Food makers pay a premium for this prime product real-estate, knowing it will automatically draw shoppers' gaze (and boost chances they will add it to their carts). But here’s the kicker: because the products entice consumers on a subconscious level, they can’t easily resist the temptation.

Cohen and Babey conclude that high-profile placement of unhealthy food is a risk factor for chronic disease, and should therefore be curbed. To achieve that, the authors suggest implementing “regulations that could govern the design and placement of foods in retail outlets to protect consumers” and “limiting the types of foods that can be displayed in prominent end-of-aisle locations and restricting foods associated with chronic diseases to locations that require a deliberate search to find.”

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