Removing sweets from grocery store checkout lines leads to ‘dramatic’ drop in unhealthy purchases

CAMBRIDGE, England — Trips to the grocery store can always turn into shopping sprees for foodies, but the biggest threat to your figure may actually come when you check out. New research shows that removing sweets from grocery store checkout lines leads to fewer purchases of unhealthy snacks.

Researchers from several universities in the United Kingdom say their findings suggest that eating sugary foods and unhealthy snacks is more compulsive than previously thought. They saw a “dramatic” drop in unhealthy food purchased to eat “on the go,” and significantly fewer customers added the snacks to their orders to take home.

“Many snacks picked up at the checkout may be unplanned, impulse buys – and the options tend to be confectionary, chocolate or crisps,” says research leader Dr. Jean Adams from the Centre for Diet and Activity Research at the University of Cambridge in a release. “Several supermarkets have now introduced policies to remove these items from their checkouts, and we wanted to know if this had any impact on people’s purchasing choices.”

In the study, six out of the nine major supermarkets in the UK voluntarily took unhealthy snacks from their checkout aisles between 2013 and 2017. The authors monitored purchases of the frowned-upon foods changed after the policies went into place, studying 30,000 households involved in the study 12 months before the change and 12 months after.

They found after the policies took effect, there was an immediate 17 percent reduction in purchases of of the snacks. After the 12-month study period, they found that number was mostly the same, dropping only slightly to 15 percent.

A second position of the study followed 7,500 shoppers in 2016-2017 in supermarkets with the policy in place and without. Participants were asked to note when they bought and ate checkout aisle snacks on the go. The number were eye-popping: participants made a whopping 76 percent fewer purchases of sugary sweets, chocolate, and potato chips commonly found in checkout lines from supermarkets following the new policy.

“Our findings suggest that by removing sweets and crisps from the checkout, supermarkets can have a positive influence on the types of purchases their shoppers make,” says Dr Katrine Ejlerskov, the study’s first author. “This would be a relatively simple intervention with the potential to encourage healthier eating. Many of these purchases may have been impulse buys, so if the shopper doesn’t pick up a chocolate bar at the till, it may be one less chocolate bar that they consume.”

The researchers suggest their research is evidence for government interventions that could curb stores from selling unhealthy items in the checkout lines, or create nutritional standards for items that are allowed to be put on display while customers wait to pay.

The study was published in the journal PLOS Medicine.

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