In these COVID-19 times it has become clear how much we depend on supermarkets for our food. But the heavy promotion of junk foods is encouraging poor dietary habits, particularly among shoppers living in poorer areas and with less opportunity to find alternatives.
We have all seen how supermarkets promote soft drinks, chips, chocolates and lollies by giving these products more shelf-space, discounting them more frequently than healthier options, and placing them prominently in end-of-aisle displays and near checkouts.
Now, our suspicions have been confirmed by Deakin University researchers who found it was almost impossible to pay for groceries without being exposed to unhealthy food and drinks and 80 per cent of end-of-aisle displays for food and drinks contained unhealthy items.
They found 35 per cent of what we eat is unhealthy and if we want to improve our diets then supermarkets need to play a greater role in encouraging people to select healthy options.
Supermarkets can do this by:
Providing healthier checkouts that do not display chocolate and soft drinks
Replacing unhealthy items with healthy food and drinks at end-of-aisle displays
Allocating less shelf-space to unhealthy items
Offering fewer discounts on unhealthy food and drinks
The research findings are the result of in-store audits of 104 stores throughout Victoria, including 26 Woolworths supermarkets, 26 Coles supermarkets, 26 Aldi supermarkets and 26 independent supermarkets.
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.
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.
Supermarkets in more socioeconomically disadvantaged areas were less healthy than those located in less disadvantaged areas.
This is bad news because disadvantaged people have higher rates of diet-related diseases, are less likely to eat healthy, nutritious food, and are more likely to over-consume unhealthy food.
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.
The researchers concluded that if the supermarkets won’t improve their practices, then the government should step in.
Key findings included:
Unhealthy food was present at 90 per cent of all staff-assisted checkouts.
‘Chocolate and confectionery’ and unhealthy drinks were the two most common types of food displayed at checkouts.
Food on special at checkouts was 7.5 times more likely to be unhealthy than healthy.
Of all end-of–aisles that displayed food and drinks, 80 per cent had at least one type of unhealthy item. The top two types of food displayed were ‘chocolate and confectionery’ and chips.
The proportion of shelf space allocated to selected unhealthy food and beverages (compared with fruit and vegetables) in the most disadvantaged areas was nearly 10 per cent higher than in the least disadvantaged areas.