Want to make healthier food choices? Grocery store layouts could help, study finds

TORONTO — New research from the United Kingdom suggests that grocery stores can make a few simple changes to their layout that could lead customers to make some healthier choices.

The researchers from the University of Southampton found that removing unhealthy products from the checkout lines and the ends of aisles near the checkout lanes, as well as increasing the size of the produce section and moving it to the front of the store, led to fewer unhealthy purchases overall, while purchases of fruits and vegetables increased.

“Altering the layouts of supermarkets could help people make healthier food choices and shift population diet towards the government’s dietary recommendations,” Christina Vogel, principal research fellow in Public Health Nutrition at the University of Southampton, said in a news release.

“The findings of our study suggest that a healthier store layout could lead to nearly 10,000 extra portions of fruit and vegetables and approximately 1,500 fewer portions of confectionery being sold on a weekly basis in each store.”

To conduct the study, researchers altered the layouts of three Iceberg supermarkets in the U.K., a popular chain of grocery stores, and compared the loyalty card purchasing data to three control stores over a nine-month span.

For the study, the researchers examined the purchasing habits of 107 consenting female shoppers who regularly visited one of the six locations.

After three months, those who shopped at the altered store had their diet quality score increase by 0.29 standard deviations, which the researchers say is the equivalent of six additional portions of green salad per week.

Janis Baird, professor of public health and epidemiology at Southampton University, said this study provides evidence that a ban on placing unhealthy foods prominently in the supermarket would be beneficial to our health.

“These results provide novel evidence to suggest that the intended U.K. government ban on prominent placement of unhealthy foods across retail outlets could be beneficial for population diet, and that effects may be further enhanced if requirements for a produce section near supermarket entrances were incorporated into the regulation,” she said in the news release.

In an email to CTVNews.ca, Simon Somogyi, Arrell Chair in the business of food and professor at Guelph University’s School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management, was quick to point out that the study was conducted in 2016 and 2017, and a lot of purchasing habits have changed since the pandemic.

“Pre (COVID-19) and now people can’t queue up at checkouts, so the issue of impulse buying is less as less time is spent at the checkout,” he wrote in the email.

Somogyi also said that the increased prevalence of self-checkout lines during the pandemic has left little space for these impulse items.

The study was published on Wednesday in PLOS Medicine and was conducted in partnership with Iceberg.

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