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Ayala Laufer-Cahana, M.D. Headshot

Study: Do Supermarkets Promote What's Good for You?

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Advertisements sell and -- as much as we hate to admit it -- food ads do shape the way we eat. That's why in 2010 about $7 billion was spent on food ads in the U.S.

Much has been said about the ubiquity of junk food and fast food ads on TV and their effect on eating habits, especially kids' eating habits.

Newspaper and mailed circulars receive much less attention, despite the fact that they are an important advertising channel for food and grocery retailers, and food advertisers spend nearly $1.6 billion on these outlets yearly. Consumers pay quite a lot of attention to them, and a recent survey showed that shoppers change their meal plan according to which products are on promotion, with young people even more susceptible to eating-on-promotion.

A new study (published online ahead of print) in Appetite is among the first to evaluate the types of foods promoted by U.S. supermarkets and compare them with current dietary guidance. The study analyzed sales circulars issued in 2011 by supermarket top chains and included a sample from each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. The proportional ad area devoted to each food group was compared to the area allotted to that food group in the MyPlate icon.

Meat, soda and cereal

The most heavily promoted food group on the front page of supermarket sales circulars was meats -- beef, poultry, and pork -- and about 40 percent of ads were for these foods. MyPlate suggests 20 percent of the plate be devoted to "protein."

Foods in the fruits and vegetables groups each were given about one-tenth of the sampled advertising space; compare that to the half-plate devoted to fruits and veggies on MyPlate.

Grains, half of these being breads, cereals, and crackers, occupied one-fifth of the advertising space. This is pretty much in proportion with MyPlate.

One-tenth of the ad space was allocated to sweets -- mostly sugary drinks. These are not represented on MyPlate at all.

Selling soda to obesity-stricken states

Supermarkets promote different foods in different regions, and the researchers looked to see how the obesity rate of a state correlated with foods on its supermarket circulars.

And indeed, in states with under 25 percent obesity (such as Massachusetts and Colorado) supermarkets devoted significantly more space to fruits than in more obese regions. (Shocking note: No state has an obesity prevalence of less than 20 percent.)

On the other hand, sweets occupied significantly more ad space in the states with more than 30 percent obesity, and significantly more space was given to sugary beverages in these states.

The south regions of supermarkets tended to allocate more ad space to sweets, predominantly sugary drinks, which were given two to six times as much ad space when compared to other regions.

Can we affect supermarkets?

Although supermarkets promote the items that give them the best profit margins, they also sell what we consumers want to buy. This is evidenced by the difference this study saw between regions. I guess it's harder to appeal to Connecticut customers and lure them into stores with a special on soda.

Ads affect our behavior -- we'd like to think we're immune to their influence, but nobody really is -- but our purchasing power also affects what's on shelf and what's on promotion. When consumers seek healthier foods, it does often lead to a decrease in the price of those foods, and to chains making shelf space for better options.

As Michael Pollan often says, we get to vote with our fork three times a day. Each addidional vote has the potential to change the food world around us.

Dr. Ayala

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