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Stores’ prominent placement of produce can ‘nudge’ you toward healthful choices, study finds

Getting people to eat more fruits and vegetables has long been a major goal of health officials.

Getting people to eat more fruits and vegetables has long been a major goal of health officials.

Grocery stores that have you walk through the fresh produce aisle as soon as you enter the store are likely doing you a favor: They’re nudging you into buying more fresh fruit and veggies — perhaps significantly more, according to a study published recently in the journal BMC Public Health.

The authors of the study — a team of researchers from the University of Warwick in Great Britain — stumbled into doing the study after learning that their local, on-campus grocery store, Rootes, had moved its fruits and vegetables from the back of the store to the aisle closest to the front entrance in January 2015. The change hadn’t been done to sell more healthful foods, but simply to give the store a fresh look. The researchers wondered, however, if the layout change had affected sales.

To figure that out, they examined the store’s daily sales data for the 170 weeks that the university was in session between January 2012 and July 2017, a period that covered stretches of time before, during and after the store’s interior renovation. They found that across the entire five-year period of the study, the store averaged just over 93,000 individual-item sales per week, of which 5,564 (almost 6 percent) were fruits and vegetables.

The data also revealed, however, that after the fresh produce section was moved to the more prominent front-of-the-store location, the percentage of sales that were fruits and vegetables increased, both in terms of items purchased and money spent.

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Rootes’ customers bought about 15 percent more fruits and vegetables than would have been expected if the produce section hadn’t been moved to the front of the store, the researchers explain. And that increase appeared to hold up over time.

“This is exciting because, while we all know eating fruit and vegetables is healthy, supporting people to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption has been more complicated,” said Oyinlola Oyebode, the study’s senior author and an epidemiologist and public health researcher at the University of Warwick, in a released statement.

As Oyebode and her colleagues point out in their paper, this kind of approach to getting people to eat more healthful food doesn’t restrict consumer choice. Nor does it require consumers to consciously do anything.

Limitations and implications

The study comes with caveats, of course. It involved only one store, and most of the people who shopped there during the study were college students.

Still, the findings support other research that has shown that “choice architecture” — interventions that alter the way choices are presented to consumers — can be effective in getting people to adopt healthier behaviors. One study found, for example, that listing calories to the left rather than to the right of food items on a menu — ensuring that the calories are the first thing seen — makes it more likely that diners will choose lower-calorie items.

Getting people to eat more fruits and vegetables has long been a major goal of health officials. A diet rich in such foods is associated with lower risks for many of the leading causes of illness and death, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

Yet, here in the United States, only one in 10 adults eats the minimum recommended amount of these foods daily — 1.5 to 2 cups per day of fruit and 2 to 3 cups per day of veggies.

People living on low incomes often struggle to meet those recommendations due to a lack of access to reasonably priced, good quality fruits and vegetables. But others — people who can afford fresh produce — just don’t seem willing to toss those foods into their grocery carts.

Putting fruits and vegetables front and center in stores may help — at least a bit. But it’s going to be an uphill battle.

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The current study also made the troubling finding that although the store’s change in layout led to fruits and vegetables making up a larger percentage of the store’s sale items, the total number of such foods sold in the store steadily declined from 6.29 percent to 5.23 percent over the five years.

FMI:  You can read the study in full on the BMC Public Health website.