HealthZette

Goodies at the Checkout Counter Are Bad for Your Health but Good for Profits

Look what happens when grocery stores change up the placement of all those calorie-empty products

Though Ash Wednesday was just yesterday, treats for Easter already can be found in virtually every grocery or corner store across America, often strategically placed.

And every retailer out there is hoping yet another one of us will succumb to an “impulse buy” and grab an item (or two, or three, or four) right before checking out.

And why not? Those products look really, really good — and they’re something we have to have, right?

It’s no surprise — but worth emphasizing — that recent research from the University of Cambridge suggested that if grocery stores were to remove those sweets, chips and other delectables from the grocery checkout lanes, doing so could significantly decrease the amount of unhealthy food that people buy on the fly.

Related: The Top Seven Pantry Staples for Every Kitchen

The study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, found that 76 percent fewer purchases were made and consumed upon leaving the stores that had “no junk at the checkout” policies — compared to those stores that do stuff the checkout lanes with sweet or crunchy items.

Researchers used recent data from over 30,000 households in the United Kingdom.

Product placement in grocery stores is a science all its own. Brands pay a premium to have their items displayed at eye level in the aisles.

Consumables by children are presented similarly.

And then we’re back to the all-too-tempting checkout area — the most profitable and unhealthy area of the store, according to consumer expert Paco Underhill, author of “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.”

Picture this: You’re in line at the checkout, perhaps with your young child. You have no choice but to wait; so, naturally, your attention wanders, as does that of your child. Just the visual alone of the goodies before you can be enough temptation.

But if those items aren’t there — the desire for them decreases. No surprise, right?

As a weight-loss and fitness expert, I encourage my clients to discard any “kryptonite” from their homes as they work to strengthen their healthy habits for life.

The same principle applies at the grocery checkout.

Related: The Real Reason We Reach for Junk Food Rather Than What’s Good for Us

Dr. Jean Adams and a team of researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Stirling, and Newcastle analyzed data from the Kantar Worldpanel’s consumer panel for food, beverages, and household products. The new checkout policy — meaning that those tempting items weren’t placed in front of consumers as they’re about to pay for their items — resulted in an immediate 17 percent reduction in the purchase of unhealthy foods.

And after one year of that policy, shoppers were still purchasing 15 percent or fewer of those types of items.

“By removing sweets and crisps from the checkout, supermarkets can have a positive influence on the types of purchases their shoppers make,” said Dr. Katrine Ejlerskov, the study’s first author.

Sure, they need to find other profit-making strategies.

And we need to watch our health.

The study is reminiscent of recent vending machine policy changes in the schools. If unhealthy items aren’t visually available to kids — students select other items.

And check out this video:

Christine King is a medical exercise specialist, fitness expert, and founder of YourBestFit, which has helped thousands of clients recover from injuries, look and feel better, and improve overall well-being.