Americans are far more likely to purchase junk food at grocery stores than their neighborhood fast food restaurant or convenience store, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are reporting in a new study.
The findings challenge the popular “food desert” explanation for unhealthy eating choices, lead author Ruopeng An, assistant professor of kinesiology and community health at the U. of I., told Medill Reports. “On the one hand, supermarkets do provide access to healthier food, but on the other hand, they also provide junk food at a lower price and give people an additional opportunity to access junk food,” An said.
The food desert theory maintains that health indicators like obesity rates are higher because certain communities lack access to grocery stores that sell healthy items like fresh fruits and vegetables. If people have more access to healthy food, the argument goes, then people will make healthier choices.
An and colleagues reported in the August edition of European Journal of Clinical Nutritionon consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and discretionary foods among U.S. adults by purchase location. They analyzed data from more than 4,000 American adults who submitted information about what they ate and drank and where it was purchased for two, nonconsecutive days in 2011 and 2012. The data, which came from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, consisted of a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults.
Researchers found that supermarkets and grocery stores were by far the single largest source for sugar-sweetened beverages and snack and junk food purchases in U.S. adults.
“Supermarket purchases of these items are about two to four times as large as all the other sources – fast-food restaurants, full-service restaurants, convenience stores, vending machines and other locations – combined,” An said.
“We don’t see from our data that the presence of a supermarket has a preventive effect on people’s obesity or their junk-food intake,” An said.
Since 2011, the Federal Government has spent almost $500 million to improve access to healthy foods in neighborhoods lacking large, well-stocked grocery stores. These projects were based on early research that found a positive correlation between access to a supermarket and diet quality, according to the USDA website.
However, An said that there is actually very little evidence for this. People buy what tastes good and what they’re used to eating, he said. So, although supermarkets do offer healthy options, they also give customers an opportunity to buy more junk food—and at a lower price than restaurants and convenience stores.
The study is only the most recent to suggest that opening a local supermarket is not a one-size-fits-all solution that will transform people’s eating habits.
“We used to think it was primarily a matter of access and that all we had to do was build a store, and people would purchase healthier food,” said Bradley Appelhans, an associate professor at Rush Medical College, who studies neurobehavioral influence on eating behaviors. “It’s not as simple as we thought it was.”
Appelhans explained that food choice is affected by so many factors, including culture, income, education, mood, the way the brain processes rewards, any many more. “Unless those other factors are also addressed, [a new grocery store] provides opportunities, but you haven’t actually convinced people to take advantage of them,” he said.
Appelhans noted that rather than just building a grocery store, stores should focus on in-store educational interventions, such as one he tested in a 2012 study, which sought to find out if people’s shopping habits changed when a dietitian stood in front of grocery stores and gave simple nutrition advice to shoppers. The study found that the dietitian’s presence and advice led customers to make healthier food choices.
The intervention was successful because people could implement the advice right away, when it was fresh in their minds, he said.
An suggested a different type of intervention: “Many studies, including ours, suggest that when the price changes, such as taxing junk food and reducing the price of fruits and vegetables, people will buy healthier food,” he said.
In other words, policymakers need to look at affordability as well as accessibility.
This line of thinking is what’s behind programs that tax unhealthy items, such as the soda tax passed in Philadelphia in June of this year. It’s also the philosophy that underlies programs providing discounts on healthy food, such as The Double Value Coupon Program in Chicago, which allows those who receive food stamps to use their LINK cards at participating farmers markets in the city, and matches funds for all purchases made on fruits and vegetables.
Nevertheless, some experts say that even though addressing these other factors is important, actually providing people with the option to buy healthy food is still the first step.
“All the knowledge in the world will not allow food desert residents to choose healthy food if they do not have access to it,” stated Mari Gallagher, whose research firm popularized the term “food desert” in 2006, in a written response to a New York Times article that questioned whether building supermarkets in food deserts was really an effective way to change people’s eating habits. Gallagher did not respond to a request to comment for this article.