Supermarkets urged to stop plugging junk

20th May 2020 | Eativity editors

The heavy promotion of junk foods by Australia’s biggest supermarket chains is encouraging poor dietary habits, particularly among shoppers living in areas of socioeconomic disadvantage, a new study has found.

Researchers from Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre in the Institute for Health Transformation found 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.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Gary Sacks says the survey, funded by the Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, found that it was almost impossible to pay for groceries without being exposed to unhealthy food and drinks, while 80% of end-of-aisle displays for food and drinks contained unhealthy items.

“The recent rush on products during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the central role of supermarkets as the main source of food for most Australian households,” he says.

“We also know that up to 35% of what Australians eat is considered unhealthy. If we are to improve Australian diets we need supermarkets to play a greater role in encouraging people to select healthy options.”

Long road to ruin: the never-ending chip aisle.

The report identified that supermarkets can help Australians move toward healthy and nutritious diets 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; and

Offering fewer discounts on unhealthy food and drinks.

The survey 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.

Spoiled for choice? That’s the big idea.

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,” Sacks says.

“A major concern was that, on some measures, supermarkets in more socioeconomically disadvantaged areas were less healthy than those in less disadvantaged areas. People living with socioeconomic disadvantage have higher rates of diet-related diseases, are less likely to eat healthy food and are more likely to over-consume unhealthy food. The extent to which unhealthy food is pushed at us shouldn’t depend on the suburb in which we live.”

A healthier supermarket environment can lead to better choices.

The two healthiest stores in the study were both independent stores with abundant fresh food, and few promotional displays for unhealthy food and drinks. Sacks says this demonstrates that a healthier supermarket environment is possible.

“We need all Australian supermarkets to set higher standards relating to food promotion,” he says. “If supermarkets and the processed food industry don’t take action to improve their practices, then government should be ready to step in to ensure the supermarket environment encourages more healthy choices.”

Key findings of the report:

Unhealthy food was present at 90% of all staff-assisted checkouts.

Chocolate, confectionery and unhealthy drinks were the 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% had at least one type of unhealthy item. The top types of food displayed were chocolate, 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% higher than in the least disadvantaged areas.