Recently, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a report that shows how prevalent highly processed junk food is at the checkouts of major non-food chain stores. With the rate of obesity in this country at an all time high, selling junk food in a non-food retail environment only compounds the problem. By selling chips, candy and cookies at places like Old Navy and Bed, Bath & Beyond, people have even more access to food items that are detrimental to their health. We discussed this report and its implications with Jessica Almy, Senior Nutrition Policy Counsel at Center for Science in the Public Interest.
IW: Tell us about the study. For instance, where was it conducted and how many stores were involved?
JA: Our team at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) visited 30 stores in Washington DC, or just outside of the city. All were chain stores that you could find almost anywhere in the United States, places like Barnes & Noble and CVS. At each, we looked at the foods, drinks, and other products that the stores promoted at checkout.
You might wonder why we did this. When most people think of marketing, they think about advertising. However, displaying food at checkout is also a powerful form of marketing that induces people to purchase (and eat) food and beverages that they otherwise might not. We wanted to see what exactly the companies were pushing at checkout, and whether it was more likely to promote health or harm it.
IW: What did you discover?
JA: We found that a wide variety of retail stores display foods and beverages at checkout—including the vast majority (86%) of non-food stores we visited. The majority (90%) of checkout food offerings are unhealthy. Examples include candy, chips, and snack cakes. Likewise, the majority (60%) of checkout beverage offerings are unhealthy—soda and other sugar drinks. In other words, most checkouts push foods and beverages that are more likely to harm health than promote it.
IW: What surprised you the most in this study?
JA: We found that food and beverages at checkout are pervasive not only in supermarkets, but also in many stores that are not in the business of selling food. We found Nestlé Chunky bars and large bags of Milky Ways at a Bed, Bath & Beyond outlet, and Air Heads, Pop Rocks, and Mentos at an Old Navy checkout. We decided to call our report “Sugar Overload” [link: http://cspinet.org/healthycheckout.html] because of the prevalence of candy and sugar-sweetened beverages we observed at checkout.
IW: Do we know how many people actually purchased these unhealthy foods at checkout?
JA: Our study shows that retail stores are prompting people to purchase and consume calories that contribute to obesity and harm their health.
Our study didn’t assess how many people bought candy or soda at checkout, but when food company researchers interviewed 1,300 shoppers, more than half said they had bought candy from checkout in the past six months. We also know from industry publications that these purchases don’t replace what people buy from other parts of the store. When stores sell an item from checkout, people spend 8.8 percent more than they otherwise would. We also know that just seeing food can prompt people to eat it—even if they’re not hungry.
If stores were pushing bananas or carrots, this practice might be ok. But they’re not. They’re pushing candy, chips, snack cakes, soda, and energy drinks. No one needs more of those foods and drinks in their diet.
IW: What, if anything, has been the reaction of the retail industry?
JA: Recently, a trade publication asked me to write an opinion piece about candy at checkout. I argued that, in an age of obesity and diabetes, it is unethical for retailers to push candy on their customers. The trade publication couldn’t find anyone to argue the other side!
IW: What do you hope people will take away from this?
JA: Many of us have gotten used to seeing candy and soda at checkout, but it doesn’t need to be this way. Our study showed that nearly half (47%) of all checkout offerings are non-food merchandise. Stores must be making money on the sales of these items, or else they would not be selling them. I hope people will question why stores like toy, hardware, and office supply stores, which are not even in the food business, are selling junk food and soda. I mean, when someone goes shopping for curtains, why should she face candy at the checkout? From a public health perspective, it doesn’t make sense.
IW: As concerned citizens, what can we do to ensure that stores eliminate junk foods at checkout?
JA: We can ask Bed Bath & Beyond and other non-food retailers to stop pushing candy and soda at checkout. Here’s a sample tweet:
Please @BedBathBeyond, healthy eating is hard enough. Don’t sell candy at checkout. #SugarOverload
We can also call on supermarkets and other food stores to adopt nutrition standards for checkout. Talk to your local store manager, or send an email to the store headquarters.
To join the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s work to make it easier for people to eat well, please sign up for our action network: www.cspinet.org/actnow.