70% of foods and drinks at store checkouts are unhealthy

Food and beverage companies consider the checkout lane to be prime real estate for their products, says  Jennifer Falbe. The checkout is the only place in a store where every customer must pass through, and it's known to contribute to impulse purchases. (Credit: Getty Images)

A new study finds that 70% of foods and beverages at store checkout lanes are unhealthy.

The study that also finds an even higher proportion of snack-sized options are unhealthy—89%.

The study, published in the journal Current Developments in Nutrition suggests most food and beverage options at checkout consist of candy (31%), sugar-sweetened beverages (11%), salty snacks (9%), and sweets (6%).

Healthy items are far less common. Water represented 3% of food and beverage options, followed by nuts and seeds (2%), fruits and vegetables (1%), legumes (0.1%), and milk (0.02%).

Food and beverage companies consider the checkout lane to be prime real estate for their products, says lead author Jennifer Falbe, associate professor with the department of human ecology at the University of California, Davis. The checkout is the only place in a store every customer must pass through, and it’s known to contribute to impulse purchases, she says.

“The checkout lane has been designed this way through marketing agreements in which food and beverage companies pay stores to place their products—which are mostly unhealthy—at checkout,” Falbe says.

The researchers analyzed the checkout lanes in 102 food stores in Davis, Sacramento, Oakland, and Berkeley, California. Stores included supermarkets, grocery stores, specialty food stores, drugstores, dollar stores, and mass merchandisers.

They conducted their evaluation in February 2021, right before an ordinance in the city of Berkeley went into effect requiring large food stores to offer more nutritious offerings at the checkout. Berkeley became the first city in the US to implement a healthy checkout policy.

Falbe says Berkeley’s policy is consistent with federal dietary guidelines that emphasize consuming nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds and cutting back on sodium and added sugars.

“The majority of the US population exceeds the daily recommended limits for added-sugar and sodium intake,” Falbe says. “Berkeley’s checkout policy allows certain food and beverage categories at checkout (e.g., unsweetened beverages, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and dairy) and sets limits on the amount of added sugar and sodium in a product at checkout. Shoppers can still get candy from the candy aisle, but it won’t be forced on them at checkout.”

The study used Berkeley’s policy as a benchmark to help measure the healthfulness of products at store checkouts. The researchers found that the percentage of food and beverage options that met healthy checkout standards was highest in chain specialty food stores, chain supermarkets, and chain mass merchandisers. It was lowest in chain dollar stores and independent grocery stores, which are more common in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Checkout areas can strongly influence consumer choices. Falbe says she hopes that these findings can be used to help improve the food environment for people across all neighborhoods.

“There’s an opportunity here for checkouts to offer more choice by expanding access to healthier options,” Falbe says. “Currently, consumers lack choices at the checkout.”

Additional coauthors are from the University of Illinois, Chicago and UC Davis.

The Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Food Policy Program funded the work.

Source: UC Davis