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Science & Research 28.10.2015

Obesity Prevention Researchers Find That Supermarket Circulars Promote Unhealthy Eating

Unhealthy foods are the most promoted items in supermarket circulars around the world, according to…

Unhealthy foods are the most promoted items in supermarket circulars around the world, according to an analysis by Australian obesity prevention researchers.

In a study just published in the leading international journal Preventive Medicine, the researchers from Deakin University's WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention (Melbourne, Australia) assessed the content of circulars from major supermarket chains in 12 countries. They found that unhealthy food was particularly prominent in the circulars of most countries (particularly Hong Kong, UK, USA, Australia, Malaysia), the exceptions being the Philippines (no unhealthy foods) and India (11 per cent unhealthy food).

"A clear opportunity exists for supermarkets to use their circulars to promote healthy eating," said Dr Adrian Cameron, a senior research fellow with the Centre.

"This international comparison shows that some major supermarkets are able to promote more healthy foods than unhealthy foods. The high levels of promotion of junk food by other supermarkets therefore need not be the norm."

For the study, the researchers assessed the healthiness of circulars from Australia, United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa and Sweden. The products were grouped into healthy (from the five core food groups) and unhealthy (discretionary) foods according to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. Healthy foods that should be consumed daily included fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat, grains and water, while unhealthy foods included soft drinks, confectionary, chocolate, chips, desserts and ice creams, unhealthy ready meals, fats and oils, processed meats, jams and energy drinks. Alcohol was also assessed, with a separate category for assorted other foods such as tea, coffee, natural sweeteners, salad dressing, sauces, salt, breakfast spreads, infant food products, herbs and spices.

They found that the front covers included markedly healthier products than the remainder of the circular, reflecting the desire by retailers to present a healthy image.

Circulars from Hong Kong store Park'N'Shop promoted the greatest proportion of unhealthy food and alcohol (69 per cent), with circular content from Asda (UK, 61 per cent), Kroger (USA, 57 per cent), Coles and Woolworths (Australia 54 per cent) and Giant (Malaysia, 51 per cent) all including more than half unhealthy food and alcohol. Circulars from Loblaws (Canada), New World (New Zealand), Fairprice (Singapore) and Shoprite (South Africa) also contained a high proportion of unhealthy food (40 to 50 per cent).

Supermarkets are a major source of food in most high-income countries and increasingly in middle- and low-income countries. These findings support previous work by this team that found supermarkets worldwide heavily promote unhealthy foods at key sites in-store, such as end-of-aisle and checkout displays.

"With guidelines suggesting that discretionary foods should only constitute a small component of the total diet, these results show that the supermarket food environment is at odds with dietary recommendations," Dr Cameron said.

"We believe the promotion of unhealthy foods by supermarkets could be a major barrier to halting the global obesity epidemic.

"It is becoming a particular concern in low and middle-income countries where supermarkets are rapidly displacing traditional food sources. Efforts to restrict unhealthy food marketing should also focus on supermarkets."

The Preventive Medicine study, 'Supermarkets and unhealthy food marketing: An international comparison of the content of supermarket catalogues/circulars', is available at: click here

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