This Might Make You Buy Healthier Groceries

May 26th 2015

Laura Donovan

A grocery cart with sections marked for healthy food might compel people to actually buy healthier items, academics say. NPR just highlighted a study from the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior that found partitioned grocery carts -- marked with "healthy" and "unhealthy" sections -- could lead to better food choices as humans respond to subtle suggestions in decision-making.

As pointed out by NPR science correspondent Shanker Vedantam, the researchers sought to find out whether dividing a shopping cart would have an impact on the kinds of foods customers chose to buy.

"People often tend to follow rules and signs," Vedantam said. "When you sign up for a retirement account, for example, you're often told 'look, here's a basket of stocks, and here's a basket of bonds,' and just doing that can help people balance the risk in their portfolios because it prompts them to choose some things from each basket."

Researchers applied this logic to grocery carts by partitioning carts in stores throughout the U.S. and Canada and including signs that read, "this part of the cart is for fruits and vegetables" and "this part of the cart is for other kinds of food." They observed that the signs prompted people to throw more fruits and veggies into their carts.

Why the shopping environment also matters.

The shopping atmosphere itself can also make a difference in the way people select items for their cart. The report found that customers who received flyers promoting fruits and vegetables were more likely to buy those items than customers who merely got a cost-savings flyer upon entering the store.

"When shoppers were exposed to the Health flyer, the shopping cart significantly influenced the share of food dollars allocated to fruits and vegetable .... but the shopping cart did not influence the share of food dollars allocated to fruits and vegetables when shoppers were exposed to the Cost-savings flyer," the report reads.

The report concluded that partitioning led shoppers to sacrifice less healthy foods, such as meat and treats, to buy fruits and vegetables.

Why shopping hungry is always a bad idea.

As the researchers also found, the larger the fruits and vegetable partition, the more fruits and veggies people bought. The only exception, however, was when people shopped in a hungry state. The researchers saw that the subjects only wanted unhealthy food when shopping hungry, keeping with the saying that it's never a good idea to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach (you also tend to spend more money that way).

The power of being informed.

Consumers seem to make healthier decisions when informed of the nutrition of their potential purchases. In 2011, a study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that calorie-posting Starbucks locations in New York City saw a 6 percent reduction in calories per transaction. Though Starbucks reported beverage choices weren't impacted by calorie posts, the average calories from food per transaction dropped by nearly 15 percent. Calorie-posting did not have a negative affect on Starbucks revenue. In fact, the research found that Starbucks stores within 50 meters of a competitor actually saw an increase in revenue following the calorie-posting requirement.