Impulse buys of unhealthy foods in checkout aisles helps to drive obesity, report contends

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition

Impulse buys of unhealthy foods in checkout aisles helps to drive obesity, report contends
Despite any progress that might have been made in the health of offerings in US food retail outlets, the food displayed in the checkout queue is as unhealthy as ever, according to a report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The quick availability of such food options in food stores and other types of retail outlets is helping to drive the national obesity trend, the group contends.

The report, which looked at stores in the Washington, DC area (and which also looked at the checkout aisles of non food retailers), found that 90% of food options for sale were for candy, chips, cookies, and other junk foods, and 60% of the beverage options were for soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.   

Impulse buys translate to impulse pounds

Titled, “Sugar Overload: Retail Checkout Promotes Obesity,” ​the report notes that research has shown that snack food consumption increases when the foods are within reach or even visible. The checkout aisle strategy hits people when they are most likely to make an impulse purchase, when they are most vulnerable, so to speak.

“Certainly checkout is a powerful marketing strategy,”​ Jessica Almy, lead researcher on the report, told FoodNavigator-USA. “It works on children as well as adults. People tell us they buy things they didn’t expect to buy when they buy it at checkout.”

The report found that that impulse is devoted almost entirely toward foods characterized as “unhealthy.” This is mostly because there was nothing else to buy in those checkout lanes. Most US adults consume too many calories already and can’t really afford an impulse candy bar or sugar-sweetened beverage, the report said. Most consumers do not subtract calories elsewhere in the diet to offset the food consumed as a result of a checkout purchase, Almy said.

“We are living in a time diabetes is prevalent and two out of three adults are overweight or obese,”​ Almy said. “It would be one thing if we were talking about an unplanned banana.  But we’re not.  We’re talking about an unplanned candy bar or bag of chips.”

The report looked a variety of retail outlets, including traditional grocery stores, supercenters and a convenience store.  Non food retailers included outlets such as office supply stores, sporting goods stores, book stores and electronics retailers. 

Healthy foods almost entirely absent

For purposes of the study, healthy foods included fruits, vegetables, and nuts; unhealthy foods were candy, energy bars, chips, cookies/cakes, dried meat, and hot food (i.e. pizza, hot dogs, and chicken wings); and healthier foods were somewhat nutritionally improved options that contained nuts, dried fruit, or whole grains, such as granola bars, cereal bars, and trail mix. Of the offerings, 8% fell into the “healthier”​ catgegory and only 2% were categorized as “healthy.”

Beverages were categorized as beverages as sugar‐sweetened drinks if they were regular sodas, sweetened fruit drinks, sweetened water, sweetened iced tea/coffee, or full calorie energy and sports drinks. Other beverage categories included water, diet/non‐caloric beverages, and unsweetened juice.

Regardless of where the researchers looked, the food options were depressingly similar, featuring unhealthy food options that seemed designed in part to prime children to goad their parents into buying them treats.  Across all stores, candy and gum topped the list of food items. Of the 21 non food outlets surveyed, only three refrained from offering food in the checkout lane. One food outlet had what was called a “family friendly” aisle, but it was a misnomer as far as the food was concerned Almy said.

“As far as we could tell, it had to do with the content of the magazines displayed there,”​ she said.

Only one retailer took what could be called a healthy approach to food merchandising overall in its checkout areas. That was Costco, where no merchandise is sold there.  The self-check lanes in some stores also had no merchandise displayed in the area.


The report recommended that non food retailers cease selling food and beverages in the checkout aisle of their stores.  While consumers have become accustomed to the practice, the food offered by these retailers is of almost universally poor quality and is aimed at the purest sort of impluse buy. Secondly, the report urged actual food retailers to improve the nutritional quality of food offered in these lanes.  The group called on retailers to set limits for calories, added sugar and sodium and fat content.

“We did see a couple of cases of fruits or nuts being sold at checkout but that is really rare,” ​Almy said.

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