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How we get sucked in by junk food specials in supermarkets

Most people aspire to eat a healthy diet. But things change when we get to the supermarket. Vladyslav Starozhylov/Shutterstock

How we get sucked in by junk food specials in supermarkets

Most people aspire to eat a healthy diet. But things change when we get to the supermarket. Vladyslav Starozhylov/Shutterstock

Three in five Australian adults get sucked in by promotions and specials on junk food and sugary drinks at the supermarket, research released today shows.

The research for LiveLighter – a health education campaign delivered by the Cancer Council and Heart Foundation – found 53% of shoppers visit the supermarket several times a week or every day.

This presents many occasions during which shoppers are influenced to purchase unhealthy foods through the layout of the store, product placement and advertising.

From healthy intentions…

Most people aspire to eat a healthy diet. Two-thirds of the 2,000 Australians surveyed regularly plan their meals in advance. Around half compare supermarket products to see which is healthier.

But three in five respondents said they were likely to purchase junk foods – lollies, chocolate, chips, biscuits, ice-cream and soft drinks – when they were on sale or promotion. It’s hardly surprising, given how cheap and conveniently junk foods are located; not just in our shops, but also at transport hubs, workplaces and local neighbourhoods.

In an attempt to trigger impulse purchases in supermarkets, processed snack foods are available at the end-of-aisle and in-island bin displays, as well as at the checkout. Sometimes they are on special, or feature large promotional packages, multipacks or two-for-one offers, appealing to price-sensitive shoppers.

Shoppers may place value on the convenience, taste or brand of a highly processed “snack” food. Discounted fruit or vegetables don’t have the same persuasive power to increase purchases, nor do these products have the same profit margins. Supermarket catalogues and websites promote weekly specials which include some fresh produce but are dominated by unhealthy food promotions.

Around 35% of Australians’ daily energy intake now comes from unhealthy food. As a result, around 63% of Australians adults and 27% of children are overweight or obese.

What needs to be done?

Supermarkets have a role to play in helping make the healthy choice the easy choice for Australian families.

Some supermarkets have introduced initiatives like confectionery-free checkouts and offering free fresh fruit to children in store. We’d like to see more of this.

We’d also like to see healthy food and drinks feature more heavily in their end-of-aisle promotions, catalogues and advertising.

When it comes to obesity more broadly, comprehensive action is well overdue. There is growing international consensus about the types of measures that are most likely to have the biggest impact on the promotion of healthy eating. These include:

  • Restricting the advertising and promotion of discretionary junk foods and drinks to children and young people. Current self-regulation is seriously inadequate and should be addressed with more robust regulation

  • Introducing a sugary drinks tax to increase the price of these products and reduce consumption. The funds raised could be used for obesity-prevention initiatives

  • Taking action to make the Health Star Rating System mandatory and refining the system to ensure it reflects dietary guidelines

  • Limiting the promotion and availability of unhealthy foods and drinks in settings such as hospitals and public places, with particular attention to places that are frequented by children and young people

  • Supporting the reformulation of processed foods to reduce key nutrients of concern to health, with clear targets and timelines to achieve these

  • Sustaining and increasing funding for evidence-based public education campaigns. Evaluation shows they can increase knowledge and understanding and shape attitudes, leading to intention to change behaviour.

As a society, we are all responsible for ensuring that there are measures in place to protect the health of our children and our nation.