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Grocery-store coupons may be good for your wallet, but many are bad for your health

REUTERS/Jim Young
Only a very small percentage of grocery-store coupons can be used to purchase healthful fruits, vegetables or unprocessed meats.

Grocery couponing is going high-tech. Earlier this month, several grocery chains announced that they have purchased technology that will send coupons and product discounts directly to your smartphone as you walk down the relevant aisle in their stores.

Getting near the frozen-pizza aisle? Your phone will automatically alert you to which pizzas can be purchased with a digital coupon.

But you may want to resist downloading that particular app. Grocery-store coupons (whether printed out or sent digitally to your phone) may save you some money, but they may also cost you in terms of your health.

For, as a new study has found (and most savvy shoppers already know), only a very small percentage of grocery-store coupons can be used to purchase healthful fruits, vegetables or unprocessed meats.

Instead, most coupons are for processed foods — usually sugar-loaded snacks.

This finding has implications for Americans’ overall dietary health.  A 2012 survey found that 89 percent of shoppers regularly use coupons to save money at the grocery store. Most coupons are still cut out of newspapers, magazines or other printed materials. But almost a third of grocery shoppers use online coupons, a percentage that is expected to grow substantially over the next few years.

A nutritional imbalance

For the current study, researcher Andrea Lopez and internist Dr. Hilary Seligman of the University of California, San Francisco, analyzed 1,056 online store coupons issued by six national grocery chains during April 2013.

The number of coupons offered by each grocery chain ranged from 58 to 508.

Lopez and Seligman categorized the coupons by using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ChooseMyPlate.gov food groups. They found that half of the coupons fell into three categories:

  • processed snack foods, candies and desserts (25%)
  • prepared meals (14%)
  • beverages (12%) (More than half of those beverage coupons were for sodas, juices/kids’ drinks, and energy/sports drinks.)

Very few coupons, on the other hand, fell into these three categories:

  • vegetables, including canned products (3%)
  • unprocessed meats (1%)
  • fruits (fewer than 1%)

“‘Healthful foods’ generally include fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, unprocessed meats, and nuts and seeds; unhealthy foods are high in fat, sodium, and added sugars,” Lopez and Seligman write. “By this metric, grocery stores’ online coupons in our study were dominated by unhealthful foods, including processed snack foods, candies, desserts, processed prepared meals, and cereals. Few coupons were available for more healthful alternatives, such as fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats.”

A known influence

The study’s findings are troubling because coupons are known to influence consumer purchases. Other research has found, for example, that when snack prices decrease, consumption of those products increases. The same is true for fruits and vegetables. In one study, researchers estimated that a “10% off” coupon for fruits or vegetables would increase average weekly purchases of those foods by up to 11 percent.

Yet, as this current study confirms, grocery stores rarely issue coupons for fruits and veggies. Several market forces may be at work, say Lopez and Seligman, including the complexity of forecasting prices for fruits and vegetables. In addition, grocery stores may have simply resigned themselves to accept the wastage of fresh produce as part of their normal cost of doing business.

That would be a shame. For grocery stores throw away $15 billion each year in unsold fruits and vegetables, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Consumers and retailers may both benefit from stronger incentives for purchasing perishable food items,” conclude Lopez and Seligman.

In the meantime, you may want to ignore coupons, whether print or digital, and spend more time in your grocery store’s produce section. Plan ahead. Buy produce in season (it tends to be cheaper). And, yes, look for those non-coupon specials (fresh produce can often be frozen for later use).

The study was published Thursday in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, which is published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 01/10/2014 - 04:04 pm.

    The coupons you find in your local grocery store’s circular are being funded by the manufacturers of the products in them, not by the stores themselves. Which is why, then, that the coupons you do see for fresh produce tend to be for branded produce items (like the Cuties mandarins, bagged salad, etc.).

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/10/2014 - 08:37 pm.

    Be very selective

    I get a circular in the mail from my grocery chain every couple of weeks, and as the article suggests, most of the coupons are for things I don’t usually buy. A generation ago, when I was much younger, and almost totally unconcerned about my health, I might have used quite a few of them, but now, there are plenty of weeks when I check out at the store using no coupons at all.

    In essence, there aren’t many coupons for the kinds of things I normally eat, which fits Sean Olsen’s comment that they’re largely coming from the manufacturers of “branded” produce, as well as the article’s observation that they generally apply to products that are snacks or fairly heavily processed. Those are things I usually try to avoid.

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