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How the Food Environment Affects Your Food Choices

  • Barbara Eruo

 

The world has been going through some form of nutrition transition in which changes in diet and nutrition have become predictable to a degree (1). Although it varies from country to country, these changes usually coincide with increases in income. This also comes with a marked increase in demand for food variety; once people have more money to spend, they more strongly recognize the importance of having different food available. Oddly enough, these increases haven’t necessarily brought any improvements in the way that people handle their nutrition. For example, in some areas of the globe, diets have gotten better in terms of adequacy but people have gotten worse at moderating what foods and portions are good for them to consume. Those areas have lower rates of undernutrition, yet also have higher numbers of overweight people and higher incidences of chronic disease (1). So, what is going on?

Unfortunately, there is no clear right or wrong answer as to why these diet changes are happening. An important idea to take away from it is the fact that the food environment affects what people choose to incorporate into their diets. In markets specifically, the food environment creates different influences that nudge consumers one way or another in regard to how much money they can spend on food and what is likely to be bought. And it’s no secret that having a healthy diet can cost you more than an unhealthy diet. An analysis of 27 MEDLINE studies showed that healthy diets cost people $10.50 more per week on average than less-healthy diets. This especially affects people who don’t have a lot of money to devote to their nutrition. As food prices go up, the poor are more likely to purchase cheaper, less healthy foods while also skimming back on how much they eat in general (1). Price then serves as a big barrier for people in low-income areas, as they may not have the means to completely adapt to a healthier diet routine.

There is much debate as to whether or not food environments support people spending money on healthy diets. One trend that has gained attention is that more calories, protein, and fats are coming from a smaller variety of food. Plus, a higher number of energy-dense foods are being produced across the globe. This can be seen in the prevalence of convenience foods, pre-cooked meals, and store snacks – foods that are often stacked high with calories and carbs. In a 2011 USDA study, it was found that people were spending less of their money on staple cereals and fruits and vegetables but yet, they were spending more money on convenience foods and beverages (1). If you also consider the increased rates of physical inactivity in America, this doesn’t look good for the health of the typical American. Numerous technological advances have also brought down the costs of food production and distribution over the past few decades; this idleness and extra energy intake has quite likely led many Americans to gain extra weight (2).

Now, let’s look at the ways in which people actually get their food – in specific, let’s talk retail. Food retailers fill out the top level of our pyramid of power. If we focus on supermarket retailers - the ones who debatably have the most power - we notice that they are the ones who decide the what, the where, and the how for product offerings. They rely heavily on advertising and product placement strategies in order to appeal to their customer bases and drive people to action. Also, they take into consideration the suppliers’ suggestions and the incentives that are presented in their dealings. Retail owners rely on a list of products that are authorized ahead of time by the vendors that sell them their items. The frustrating thing is that there is so much unhealthy messaging in the food industry that it is difficult for good healthy marketing to attract the proper attention.

Some studies suggest that people think supercenters don’t have as many healthy foods as do more traditional food stores or places like farmers’ markets. On the flip side, supercenters in non-urban and urban locations tended to think that their customers had unhealthy eating habits, so they stocked up more on items perceived to be less healthy. Supermarkets list customer demand as one of the main influences they face in deciding which products to stock in their stores and promote to customers. So, if they believe their customers want less healthy items, they will comply with their demands. In recent years, there has been a bit of a positive movement towards healthier eating in society. People are putting more focus on the things they put in their body and addressing health concerns at large. As a result, some retailers are hopping onto the trend to show their support (3).

Since supercenters like Walmart have become the main sources of food purchases for many consumers, it would be useful to look into public health initiatives that involve these food retailers. Various public health experts believe that these food powers could help improve nutrition across the United States and help prevent obesity (2). In order to do so, they’ll have to refocus their attention and figure out the best moves to take.

 

 

Sources

1. Herforth, A. & Ahmed, S. (2015). The food environment, its effects on dietary consumption, and potential for measurement within agriculture-nutrition interventions. Food Security, 7(3), p. 505-520. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12571-015-0455-8

2. Taillie LS, Ng SW, Popkin BM. Global growth of "big box" stores and the potential impact on human health and nutrition. Nutr Rev. 2016;74(2):83–97. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4892305/

3. Martinez O, Rodriguez N, Mercurio A, Bragg M, Elbel B. Supermarket retailers' perspectives on healthy food retail strategies: in-depth interviews. BMC Public Health. 2018;18(1):1019. Published 2018 Aug 16. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6097300/

 

 

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