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Foods in prominent supermarket locations feed unhealthy choices, researchers say


NEW YORK — An article recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine examines the role that impulse marketing and customer psychology in supermarkets contributes to obesity and related health problems.

The Oct. 11 article, written by the Rand Corp.'s Deborah Cohen and University of California Los Angeles researcher Susan Babey and titled "Candy at the Cash Register — A Risk Factor for Obesity and Chronic Disease," discusses the role of placement and display of products in retail outlets, noting that goods placed in end-of-aisle locations account for about 30% of all supermarket sales.

"Our reluctance to interfere with or regulate the food environment is a direct consequence of the belief that people's food choices reflect their true desires," Cohen and Babey wrote. "However, given the large proportion of people who claim that they want to lose weight and the small proportion who are actually able to do so, we must concede that human behavior doesn't always conform with professed goals."

According to the authors, people who may try to make healthy choices can find their ability to resist foods that are palatable but high in fat and sugar placed in prominent locations like near the cash register diminished if they're distracted, stressed or have made decisions that "deplete their cognitive capacity." This can cause mental processes that increase their likelihood of purchasing unhealthy foods that are convenient and eye-catching.

The authors suggested new approaches to risk reduction that don't place additional cognitive demands on people, such as limiting the types of foods that are displayed in prominent locations and making unhealthy foods harder to find.

But some retailers have already done this, as reported in Drug Store News. In 2011, Hy-Vee introduced "Blue Zones" checkout lanes that replace sugary and fatty foods with healthy ones like fresh fruits and healthy snacks. In August 2012, Ahold banner Giant-Carlisle installed healthy-food checkout lanes in eight Martin's Food Markets stores in the Richmond, Va., area. The Martin's lanes include fruit, nuts, snack packs, nutrition bars and fruit juice.


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