Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Have we been had?

Guest post by Jean Adams, Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR)

Parents don’t like sweets at supermarket checkouts. The ‘guilt lane’, as it’s been called, seems designed to attract children in a place where they are a captive audience – you can’t just move away from the checkout when you have a trolley full of shopping that you need to pay for.

This consumer concern is what seems to have prompted many supermarkets to impose total, or partial, bans on checkout confectionary.

It was certainly a healthy dose of parental curiosity that prompted our recent study on food at checkouts in non-food stores. The lead author was in Primark with her pre-schoolers, noticed a LOT of sweets by the till, and started to wonder how pervasive a phenomenon this was.

We felt food at checkouts in non-food stores was a worthwhile thing to study for two reasons. Firstly, these are places where we assumed most people aren’t naturally thinking about food. Buying confectionary at a supermarket is, perhaps, appropriate. But at a clothes shop? Presumably most people don’t go into Primark to buy some energy-dense, nutrient-poor snacks. So any purchases they do make are unplanned and prompted entirely by the display, rather than, say, hunger. Secondly, a lot of campaigning attention has been devoted to #junkfreecheckouts in supermarkets. To some good effect. But if the problem has just shifted to other types of shops, then any war is not yet won.

So we enlisted the help of two medical students, who were keen to get some hands-on experience of public health research, and did a survey of all the non-food stores in the MetroCentre - which has the dubious accolade of being the second largest shopping centre in the UK (I’m sure it was the largest in Europe at some point).

Of 205 non-food stores in the MetroCentre, 32 of them, or 16%, had food within arm’s reach of the checkout queuing area. All these stores stocked less healthy checkout food, although about half of them also had foods that were not specifically identified as less healthy. This was mostly bottled water or chewing gum – so not exactly healthful! Overall more than four-fifths of checkout food was less healthy and would not be allowed to be advertised on children’s TV in the UK.

As well as making life easier for the parents of young children, there may well be health benefits of #junkfreecheckouts. Around the world, most checkout food really is ‘junk’ – soft drinks, and foods high in energy and salt, and low in vitamins and minerals. Checkout food may prompt impulse purchases and purchasing requests from children, which parents find hard to resist.

But, importantly, I’m not aware of any research that shows that people who see more checkout junk food eat more junk food, or that removing checkout junk food leads to changes in what people buy or eat. This is one of those absence of evidence, rather than evidence of absence situations – we just don’t know what effect checkout confectionary has on what kids eat.

There was an interesting discussion on the Food Programme recently suggesting that sales of confectionary from UK supermarkets were steady, or rising, despite many stores removing it from checkouts. Checkouts aren’t the only way to prompt impulse purchases in supermarkets. Prominent, end-aisle displays, and price promotions seem to be keeping sweets sales buoyant. At least for now.

This wasn’t what we meant: a prominent confectionary display opposite a #junkfreecheckout at my local supermarket (that pizza wasn’t mine!)
Which makes me wonder…have we been had? Have supermarkets taken confectionary off tills because it makes them look responsible and ‘part of the solution’, knowing full well it will have no effect on sales? And what might the consequences of that be for public health? Well, no change on the diet front. But what if supermarkets voluntarily choosing to remove checkout junk food, means that it also closes down a conversation on unhealthy food environments? Could the supermarkets keep referring to this non-change as a way of trumpeting how importantly they take health, and silencing any requests for further, serious, meaningful change?

I find this a bit scary. Some well-intentioned public health campaigning might have made things worse? I don’t know that it has. Maybe it hasn’t. Probably it hasn’t? Hopefully it hasn’t. Probably it’s just made no difference. At the very least, it makes life a bit easier for stressed out parents trying to get the shopping done and their kids to eat a healthy diet?

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