How do supermarkets tempt you to buy unhealthy foods?

Supermarkets should do more to tackle obesity, health professionals and charities have said in response to a Government consultation. But what role do supermarkets play in persuading us to buy unhealthy foods and how can you resist the temptation?

If you often go to the shops armed with a carefully curated list, only to head home with extra bits and bobs, you’re not alone. More than one in three of us impulse buy unhealthy foods because they're on special offer, according to a new report on the marketing tactics of supermarkets, from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH).

The average person in the UK makes 221 trips to the supermarket every year. That’s a lot of opportunities to impulse buy unhealthy food. Here are a few things to watch out for next time you hit the shops.

How the layout tempts you

Ever wondered why fruit and veg are normally located at the front of the supermarket? According to the RSPH report, the theory is you feel virtuous because you've put fruit and veg in your trolley, so you're more likely to treat yourself when you come to the confectionary aisles later.

Similarly, dairy products, bread and other essentials such as eggs, are often at the back of the supermarket, which means you have to pass lots of offers and displays on your way to them.

About 43 percent of foods and drinks located in prominent areas of popular supermarkets are sugary, according to the Obesity Health Alliance. So it's not surprising that one in five UK adults say they feel supermarkets make them go off-track when trying to lose weight. Moving snacks away from checkouts reduces their purchase by 17 percent, according to research.

It’s not only adults who are being targeted. Nearly 90 percent of products on display at children’s eye level in UK supermarkets are classed as unhealthy by the Food Standard Agency, say the RSPH and Slimming World.

The Royal Society for Public Health's recommended supermarket layout, compared to a standard small supermarket.

Offers, offers, offers!

Just under a third of food and drink items are bought on promotion, according to a recent report from Cancer Research UK. It found those who buy over 40 percent of their food and drink on special offer are more likely to be overweight, and that almost half of chocolate, crisps, popcorn and savoury snacks bought are on promotion. The research also shows bargain-loving shoppers buy 30 percent less fruit and nearly 25 percent less veg.

This new research fits with an earlier Public Health England report into sugar reduction, which found price promotions such as multi-buy offers increase the amount of sugary food and drink people buy by 22 percent.

In the second chapter of its Childhood Obesity Plan, the Government laid out clear plans for promotions, saying:

“We intend to ban price promotions, such as buy-one-get-one free (BOGOFs) and multi-buy offers or unlimited refills of unhealthy foods and drinks in the retail and out-of-home sector through legislation. In doing so, we aim to stop promotions that encourage bulk buying and over-consumption of unhealthy products.”

The Government has since launched a consultation on restricting promotions of products high in fat, sugar and salt by location and by price. Many charities and health bodies have responded, but the outcome remains unknown.

The price of goods is significant as well as whether or not they are on promotion, says the RSPH. Research shows that increasing the price of less healthy foods reduces their purchase, while reducing the price of healthier options increases their sales.

What should a supermarket look like?

In their recent report, Health on the Shelf, The RSPH and Slimming World say that supermarkets need to do more to promote healthier choices. They consulted a team of experts, who made a host of recommendations, including:

  • Move junk food so it's not at eye level or checkouts
  • Use the Government’s EatWell plate to determine the proportion of products stocked according to their nutritional value
  • Change end-of-aisle promotions – if sugary drinks are promoted, have healthier alternatives on promotion too
  • Increase space given to fruit, veg, wholegrains and reformulated products with fewer calories and less sugar
  • Provide signs nudging customers to make healthier purchases
  • Hand out healthy snacks in trials and provide free fruit for hungry shoppers
  • Have knowledgeable, friendly staff with a community feel to create a stimulating shopping experience
  • Give discounts on healthier products instead of BOGOFs on unhealthy products, or have one day a week when all healthy products are discounted.

These recommendations are being put into action in The People’s Supermarket in London.

“The environment in which we live is a major contributor towards obesity, and supermarkets have both the power and influence, as well as a responsibility, in tackling their contribution to this 'obesogenic' environment”, says Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of the RSPH.

“There has been some progress by supermarkets in areas such as removing junk food from check-outs, but our research shows shoppers and industry experts feel there is much more supermarkets can and should do to promote healthier choices”, she concludes.

How can you make yourself buy healthier food?

There are a few tricks you can use to make healthier choices in the supermarket.

  • Write yourself a reminder to buy healthy foods on your shopping list. BBC series Trust Me I’m A Doctor ran a study in a supermarket for six weeks and compared sales data with that from control stores. Sales of fruit and veg in their store increased by eight percent as a result of regular prompts to buy them.

  • Partition your trolley, with a large designated space for fruit and veg. A study found shoppers who did this were likely to buy more healthy foods.

  • Eat fruit or vegetables before you go shopping The Trust Me I'm A Doctor research promoted clementines on one day of the study, offering shoppers a free taster on their way into the shop, and found clementine sales increased by three times more than in the control stores for the day.

  • Think carefully before buying special offers

  • Make a meal plan and stick to it

  • Never shop while you’re hungry