A new study is seeking evidence that the power of supermarkets to influence our food choices can be used for good.
Unhealthy diets and obesity are now the two biggest contributors to Australia’s burden of disease and the role that supermarkets play in our food choices is increasingly under the spotlight.
In Australia, supermarkets account for 63 per cent of food and grocery spending, making their role in the food chain critical to public health.
Research has shown that the placement of products at checkouts and end of aisle displays, and the products promoted as “specials” in supermarket catalogues heavily influence the food choices we make, and not always in a healthy way.
However, a team of researchers from Deakin University believes that these same marketing techniques can also be used to promote a more healthy diet.
Under the “Eat Well @ IGA” project – a partnership between Deakin, the City of Greater Bendigo, VicHealth and IGA – seven independent IGA supermarkets in Bendigo and Geelong will join a campaign to promote better food choices.
Funded by a $550,000 National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Partnership grant and led by Dr Adrian Cameron from Deakin’s Global Obesity Centre, the study will test how a range of interventions can change what sort of foods shoppers buy.
“Marketing techniques involving manipulation of promotion, product, price and placement in the supermarket environment have the potential to improve the healthiness of consumer food purchases at a population level,” Dr Cameron said.
“However, at the moment there is limited evidence of the real world feasibility and impact of these types of interventions.
“Given that most Australian food purchases are made in supermarkets, this work has exceptional potential to improve the healthiness of food purchases and lower the risk of disease at the population level.”
Dr Cameron explained that participating stores would be decked out with a range of health promotion material, including shelf tags using the Health Star Rating System to highlight products rated 4.5 or 5 stars, custom signage in trolleys and baskets, floor decals, healthy end-of-aisle displays, flyers, a range of posters and banners, and health promotion training for staff.
VicHealth’s Healthy Eating Manager Rayoni Nelson said the project was a fantastic example of making the healthy choice the easy choice.
“Two in three Victorians are overweight or obese, which is why it is crucial we create more environments where healthy food and drinks and are easy to find and widely available,” she said.
Participating supermarkets will be closely monitored until March 2018. The project’s outcomes will be measured by comparing sales in intervention stores to those at seven other IGA supermarkets throughout regional Victoria that will serve as control stores in the randomised controlled trial.
“This is the first time a comprehensive controlled trial will be carried out in Australian supermarkets, testing new anti-obesity measures like the Government’s Health Star Rating System,” Dr Cameron said.
“We tested some of the interventions separately last year in Bendigo, without any promotion, and found they were effective in guiding customers towards healthy choices.
“We want to see if by running this kind of comprehensive trial, which includes a large range of interventions supported by promotion and training, we can make a big difference to how much healthy food is purchased over a sustained period.”
Supermarkets involved in the trial include Champions SUPA IGA Long Gully, Champions SUPA IGA Kangaroo Flat, Fairleys Eaglehawk SUPA IGA, Strath Village SUPA IGA, Strathfieldsaye SUPA IGA, Champions SUPA IGA Grovedale East and Champions IGA Grovedale Central.
Champions IGA CEO Michael Zervakis said the project was a “tremendous opportunity” for the business to help its customers eat well.
“The Champions IGA group of stores are proud to lead the way in being supermarkets that promote healthy eating,” he said.
It is hoped the trial will prove a highly cost effective, scalable way of promoting healthy eating, and be good for the retailer.
“We’re excited to see local supermarkets being proactive and positioning themselves as the champions of healthy eating, especially in disadvantaged areas with poor diet patterns,” Dr Cameron said.
“They can be a major part of the solution to the growing burden of diet-related disease.”
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Dr Adrian Cameron (left) and Mr Owen Marston, manager of Grovedale East SUPA IGA