The Case Against Junk Food and Unhealthy Snacks Being Displayed in Checkout Aisles
Updated: Mar 21, 2021
Prior exposure to images or advertisements of sweets and sugary beverages can prime consumers to purchase unhealthy snacks on impulse once inside of a grocery store.
An Overview of Why Many Public Health Experts are Against Unhealthy Food Being Located in Checkout Aisles.
Public health officials are educated on how to examine public health issues from a broader perspective and investigate dysfunctional systems. The sentiment that individuals are deficient in self control and need to exercise more will power does not qualify as a sufficient response or adequate solution to a public health crisis that vexes a large portion of the nation such as obesity. Therefore when tackling obesity, public health officials and researchers opt for reform within adjoined systems, such food systems, to alleviate major public health issues.
Covid-19 has highlighted obesity as a public health issue that invites a host of other public health epidemics. For example, a major factor that determines the mortality rate from Covid-19, the severity of the symptoms inflicted by Covid-19, and the difficulty in recovery for those infected with Covid-19 is obesity. This realization set in motion Berkeley, California’s ordinance which will prohibit the sale of junk food and unhealthy snacks such candy and chips in the checkout aisle for retailers greater than 2,500 square feet starting March 2021. The sale of candy in the checkout aisle is a familiar and even expected sight. The display of junk food and unhealthy snacks at first glance seem to be a minor issue and this ordinance just a superficial fix for obesity. However those who understand behavioral economics know what is at stake. Councilmember Kate Harrison, who voted for the ordinance stated in a meeting that the ordinance was, “really good behavioral economics. It facilitates better choices for consumers but does not limit what they can buy." Her comment suggests she is confident that this ordinance is a significant triumph and will help to shift how the food system operates in Berkeley, California and in turn change how consumers are influenced. This is a change that seeks to dislodge the advent of unhealthy snacking from American diets. According to research by Masterfoods, TDS, Wrigley, Dechert-Hampe & Co. in 2010, when 1,300 shoppers were interviewed, 60 percent said they had bought candy from the checkout aisles in the past six months. This gives a clue into the driving force in the increase in snacking by Americans. Public health officials and experts believe that the recent pervasiveness of placement marketing is causing a deadly transformation in the American diet. This ordinance is a first step in reversing this damage.
Those who oppose banning junk food from checkout aisles, argue that the lack of self control is the primary obstacle to purchasing healthy food and that the lapse of self control should not invalidate that the item was desired at that moment of purchase. In addition, they contend that overall consumers are making rational decisions when they shop for food. However self control can be compromised by many uncontrollable factors such as willpower fatigue, fatigue from overstimulation at the store, stress, distractions and even decision fatigue. These overwhelming forces can cause one to purchase items that are not necessarily desired. In addition, rational thought requires a significant amount of effort when under duress and many shoppers towards the end of their trip succumb to the lure of impulse marketing which profits from the “spur of the moment” and emotionally charged purchase. To compound matters even more, these are the exact circumstances that cause our primal instincts to gravitate toward foods with high sugar, “The food industry has made a fortune because we retain Stone Age bodies that crave sugar but live in a Space Age world in which sugar is cheap and plentiful. Sip by sip and nibble by nibble more of us gain weight because we can’t control normal, deeply rooted urges for a valuable, tasty and once limited resource,” explains Daniel E. Lieberman, who is a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University.
However the phenomenon that public health officials are most grappling with are the mass influx of impulse purchases of unhealthy snacks and junk food. Impulse decisions, which are made without conscious awareness, are fueled by automatic unconscious responses. While retailers claim that these impulse purchases reflect the consumers’ wants, public health officials doubt this claim and would rather honor the consumers’ conscious food based goals which are often made prior to entering the store. For example, regret is the conscious aftermath that many shoppers feel after the unhealthy checkout purchase. A survey by the nonprofit nutrition advocate the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 76% of shoppers who purchased unhealthy food or beverages at the checkout counter experienced regret.
Many public health officials believe these impulse buys are particularly dangerous because it is a shot of impulse calories, sugar and sodium that can accumulate under the radar and cause slow damage to the body until a visible and debilitating ailment is detected. Even though shoppers make rational goals before entering the grocery stores like a New Years resolution to lose weight, the deliberate placement of tempting items can beckon impulses to override this rationality. A shopper, Lauren Crabb, explained this brief process that is having long term consequences on public health, “I spend a ton actually buying – I fall for the, ‘oh, I’ll just grab one candy as a treat,’” she said. Rafael Del Rio who is a store manager at Mi Tierra, a store that already limits the display of junk food in the checkout aisle, also noticed the impact of the impulse, “We noticed that people tend to purchase that which is accessible to them at the last minute or they’re about to pay, out of impulse or just out of visually attracted to the product or being hungry or whatever the situation may be.” Jessica Almy, the Director of Policy for The Good Food Institute, believes that such exploitation of our vulnerabilities is unethical, violates consumer rights and like many other public health officials conclude that since our external environment has a tremendous influence over us, public policy must be implemented to make our environment more amicable to good health.
Many public health experts want to replace the consistent exposure of unhealthy foods in checkout aisles with healthier options to create food environments that support good health.
Food retailers have skillfully evaded any morsel of responsibility for the obesity epidemic by refocusing the attention to the consumers and laying the blame squarely on their shoulders ...or in this case on their eyes. However many public health officials are committed to providing a food environment that supports healthy decisions. For example, Ashley Hickson, a senior policy associate at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a national consumer advocacy organization hopes this ordinance will clean up the food environment at checkout aisles by reshaping grocery stores to be a “more neutral and health-promoting space for consumers.” Public health officials and experts doubt that personality flaws are the main reason why consumers pay more attention to unhealthy food than healthy food. Instead, many public health professionals recognize that the attention grabbing characteristics and strategic placements of the displays are constructed to capture and then direct shoppers' attention in any given direction. Even in the midst of blaming shoppers for their lack of control, food manufacturers are intimately familiar with the power of placement and by 2003 collectively spent $9 billion on placement fees just to be on the shelf of a particular grocery store. The result of all these placements all vying for our attention? Deborah Cohen, senior physician policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and the author of A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Influences Behind the Obesity Epidemic—and How We Can End It, offers some insight “The food environment has become a tsunami. If it doesn’t drown us, it waterlogs even the strongest of swimmers, who have to exert more energy, be more alert and more conscientious than ever before just to stay afloat.”
In addition, behind the scenes retailers are employing eye tracking equipment and technology to learn how to manipulate shoppers' eyes towards a display to guarantee that they are not overlooked. Public health officials realize that people often do not have full control over their gaze. Therefore many public health officials aim at reducing the bombardment of what many call pollution in the food environment, even in micro environments such as checkout aisles. Berkeley, California’s healthy checkout ordinance indirectly defines this pollution as food with more than 5 grams of added sugar and more than 200 milligrams of sodium added per serving. A 2015 research study by the University of Illinois’ Bridging the Gap program conducted a review of 8,617 stores—including supermarkets, drug stores, convenience stores, and dollar stores—across 468 communities throughout the United States. The study revealed that 88 percent of those stores displayed candy at checkout, 97 percent of supermarkets displayed candy and 93 percent of supermarkets sold sugar-sweetened beverages in the checkout aisles. This is a dangerous finding once put into context. When suffering from fatigue and especially towards the end of a mentally exhausting shopping trip, the brain begins to rely on mental shortcuts to make purchases. These large displays of junk food and unhealthy snacks at the checkout aisle force visual interaction with items that has the potential cause diabetes and obesity and the location at the register provides easy access for a quick thoughtless purchase.
Our collective food environment shapes our lifestyles and dominates our perception of what is normal, even if not healthy. The food environment can be reshaped by changing what is available. “We need to clean up the food environment the way environmentalists have been cleaning up our natural environment,” says Jessica Almy, “We need to get rid of all of this pollution in our food environment, and the checkout is a good place to start. These are not foods people need, and they are not planned purchases. There is no reason that stuff needs to be there.”
Berkeleyside: Berkeley will be first in the nation to ban candy, soda at checkout aisles, article published September 23, 2020.
Canadian Medical Association Journal: Call to reduce junk food at checkouts, article published January 6, 2015.
CBS SF Bay Area: Berkeley Approves ‘Healthy Checkout Ordinance’ Banning Junk Food Sales By Grocery Registers, article published September 23, 2020.
Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI): Sugar Overload: Retail Checkout Promotes Obesity, report published by Priya Fielding‐Singh, M.A., Jessica Almy, J.D., M.S., Margo G. Wootan, D.Sc., October 2014.
Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI): Temptation at Checkout: The Food Industry’s Sneaky Strategy for Selling More, report published by Jessica Almy, J.D., M.S., and Margo G. Wootan, D.Sc., August 2015.
NBC Bay Area: Checkout Stand Junk Food Banned From Large Grocery Stores in Berkeley, article published September 23, 2020.
The New England Journal of Medicine: Candy at the Cash Register — A Risk Factor for Obesity and Chronic Disease, perspective published by Deborah A. Cohen, M.D., M.P.H., and Susan H. Babey, Ph.D., October 11, 2012.
New York Post: This city just banned candy from supermarket checkout aisles, article published September 25, 2020.
Supermarket News: Retailers should remove junk food from checkout aisles, article published July 24, 2014.
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