Last updated May 21, 2020 at 11:45 am
The supermarkets push unhealthy eating choices in store, particularly to shoppers living in areas of socioeconomic disadvantage.
Why This Matters: By improving the healthiness of displays and discounts, supermarkets could have a positive effect on diet choices.
New research has found that it is nearly impossible to pay for groceries without being bombarded by promotions for unhealthy food. But how much depends on where you live.
The survey found that Coles and Woolworths were more aggressive at promoting unhealthy foods in prominent locations in the store. They would do this by giving these products more shelf-space and discounting them more frequently than healthier options.
The researchers also found that, in general, supermarkets in lower socio-economic areas were more “unhealthy” than those in other suburbs.
The findings have been published in a report available online, but have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Some supermarkets are less healthy than others
The researchers measured shelf space allocated to foods on display at checkouts, in end-of-aisle displays and the price promotions of healthy versus unhealthy foods.
They found that unhealthy foods were on display at 90% of staffed checkouts. If it was on special, it was 7.5 times more likely to be unhealthy.
“Aldi stores were less likely to promote unhealthy foods at end-of-aisle displays and checkouts compared to the other major chains, but there was little difference between Coles and Woolworths on key indicators of in-store healthiness,” says Associate Professor Gary Sacks, who led the research.
The survey also found that there was 10% more shelf space dedicated to unhealthy foods in the most disadvantaged areas.
“A major concern was that, on some measures, supermarkets in more socioeconomically disadvantaged areas were less healthy than those located in less disadvantaged areas.
“People living with socioeconomic disadvantage have higher rates of diet-related diseases, are less likely to eat healthy, nutritious food, and are more likely to over-consume unhealthy food.
“The extent to which unhealthy food is pushed at us shouldn’t depend on the suburb in which we live.”
“Encouragingly, the two healthiest stores in the study were both independent stores with abundant fresh food, and few promotional displays for unhealthy food and drinks. That demonstrates that a healthier supermarket environment is possible.
Supermarkets need to play a greater role in encouraging healthy options
According to Sacks, the results highlight the need for supermarkets to play role in promoting healthy options.
“The recent rush on products during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the central role of supermarkets as the main source of food for most Australian households.”
“We also know that up to 35% of what Australians eat is considered unhealthy. If we are to improve Australian diets we need supermarkets to play a greater role in encouraging people to select healthy options.”
The report identified that supermarkets can help Australians move toward healthy and nutritious diets.
Suggestions included providing healthier checkouts that don’t display chocolate and soft drinks, replacing unhealthy items with healthy food at end-of-aisle displays, as well as allocating less shelf-space to unhealthy items.
Another suggestion is that supermarkets should offer fewer discounts on unhealthy food and drink items.
“We need all Australian supermarkets to set higher standards relating to food promotion,” says Sacks.
“If supermarkets and the processed food industry don’t take action to improve their practices, then the government should be ready to step in to ensure the supermarket environment encourages more healthy choices.”