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Removing sweets from supermarket checkouts linked to fall in unhealthy snack purchases

That’s according to a study published in the Plos Medicine journal this week.

Image: Shutterstock/gyn9037

POLICIES AIMED AT removing sweets and crisps from checkouts could lead to a dramatic reduction to the amount of unhealthy food purchased to eat “on the go”, new research suggests. 

It would also lead to a significant reduction in the amount of unhealthy food purchased to take home, according to the research. 

The study, published in the Plos Medicine journal, found that 17% fewer small packages of sugary confectionery, chocolate and potato crisps were bought and taken home from supermarkets immediately after introducing a checkout food policy. 

Even more dramatically, 76% fewer purchases were bought and eaten “on the go” from supermarkets with checkout food policies compared to those without. 

Retail practices such as product displays, positioning, promotions and pricing can all influence consumers’ choice in stores. 

Supermarket checkouts provide a unique location for prompting purchases as all customers have to pass through them to pay and may spend considerable time in queues. However, the majority of food at supermarket checkouts could be considered unhealthy, the researchers note. 

“Many snacks picked up at the checkout may be unplanned, impulse buys – and the options tend to be confectionary, chocolate or crisps,” Dr Jean Adams of University of Cambridge said. 

“Several supermarkets have now introduced policies to remove these items from their checkouts, and we wanted to know if this had any impact on people’s purchasing choices.” 

Irish moves

In February, new voluntary Codes of Practice for the advertising and marketing of food and non-alcoholic drinks were published. 

The Codes, which were agreed with the food industry and apply to non-broadcast media, aim to ensure that foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) are marketed in a responsible way.

The Department of Health said that the Codes seek to ensure that children are not exposed to inappropriate marketing, advertising or sponsorship associated with these kinds of foods and drink products and that healthier food choices are actively promoted.

Some concerns were raised about the voluntary nature of the new Codes.

Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan hit out at the Department of Health, claiming that the voluntary model has “already failed in every country it has been tried in”.

The Irish Times reported in May that under a proposed code of practice drawn up for the Department of Health, retailers would have to provide checkouts free of sweets and other junk food. Instead, they would have to offer meal deals that promote a “healthy, balanced diet”.

Research

Looking at the UK research again, in order to examine the effect that the introduction of checkout food policies in major supermarket chains has had on shoppers’ purchasing habits, Dr Adams and a team of researchers analysed data from the Kantar Worldpanel’s consumer panel for food, beverages and household products. 

Six out of the nine major supermarkets in the UK introduced checkout food policies between 2013 and 2017. The researchers anonymised the information. 

First, the team looked at how purchases of less healthy common checkout foods brought home changed following the implementation of checkout policies. They used data from over 30,000 UK households from 12 months before to 12 months after implementation. 

They found that implementation of a checkout food policy was associated with an immediate 17% reduction in purchases. After a year, shoppers were still purchasing over 15% fewer of the items compared to when no policy was in place. 

Next, they looked at data from 7,500 shoppers who recorded food bought and eaten “on the go” from 2016 to 2017 from supermarkets with and without checkout food policies. 

The researchers found that shoppers made 76% fewer annual purchases of less healthy common checkout foods from supermarkets with checkout food policies compared to those without. 

Limitations

As the study was not a randomised control trial, it was not possible for the researchers to say definitely that the changes in purchasing behaviour were due to the checkout food policies. 

Stores that chose to have checkout food policies may have been different from those that did not, or shoppers may have changed to purchasing larger packages from the same stores, or similar products from stores that aren’t supermarkets. 

“Our findings suggest that by removing sweets and crisps from the checkout, supermarkets can have a positive influence on the types of purchases their shoppers make,” the study’s first author, Dr Katrine Ejlerskov, said. 

“This would be a relatively simple intervention with the potential to encourage healthier eating. Many of these purchases may have been impulse buys, so if the shopper doesn’t pick up a chocolate bar at the till, it may be one less chocolate bar that they consume,” she said. 

Dr Adams added: “It may seem obvious that removing unhealthy food options from the checkout would reduce the amount that people buy, but it is evidence such as this that helps build the case for government interventions to improve unhealthy eating.”

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