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NMSU researchers shop around for healthier grocery carts

Healthier eating could be as easy as selecting the right shopping cart on your next trip to the grocery store. Researchers at New Mexico State University are trying to figure out whether simple modifications to shopping carts could translate into profound modifications to consumers' diets.



Researchers at New Mexico State University are trying to figure out whether simple modifications to shopping carts could translate into profound modifications to consumers' diets. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"Customers are bombarded with literally thousands of messages about food as soon as they walk into the grocery store," said Collin Payne, an assistant professor in marketing at NMSU's College of Business. "Food manufacturers have tremendous amounts of money to research what influences people to buy their products. We're looking for tools that will help consumers, if they want to make healthier decisions. Right now, there are more tools helping them make less healthy decisions."

In their study, Payne's research team simply placed a yellow line across the width of shopping carts with a sign designating one side of the cart for fruits and vegetables and the other for everything else.

"We showed a 102 percent increase in people buying fruits and vegetables, without showing a decrease in supermarket profitability," he said. "Allowing retailers such as supermarkets to maintain their profits is important in achieving buy-in for these kinds of tools. Whether the profits of food manufacturers are affected remains to be seen."

Payne said his findings are significant because other studies have had little impact on the amount of healthy food purchased. A previous study commissioned by a food retailer in the Northeastern U.S. looked at rating foods throughout the store, giving them between one and three stars, depending on how healthy they were. Another tried to give food a numerical rating between zero and 100, again depending on its nutritional value.

Payne said these studies were generally found not to increase healthier purchases, possibly because shoppers would simply compare items within a food category rather than across categories - for example choosing a marginally healthier candy bar over another instead of skipping the candy bar all together in favor of an apple.

"It would be a sad day if companies ever stopped making candy bars, but consumers need better tools," Payne said. "There's been such a dramatic decrease in the consumption of fruits and vegetables over the past few decades, which corresponds to an increase in certain cancers, diabetes and other ailments."

Payne said a recent trend in food packaging also stacks the deck against consumers. Sugary cereals are now labeled as "smart choices" and stress the amount of fiber and other beneficial ingredients they contain instead of giving an idea of their overall nutritional profile. Payne said consumers need to read the nutrition facts label on the back of the box to get the full story.

"I think a lot of people have the misconception that academic marketing is concerned only with corporate welfare," Payne said. "While this certainly has its place in our society, we're trying to also help the consumers with the end result being not only a win for corporations, but also consumers."

Payne will continue his experiments next year in Las Cruces, further testing exactly where the yellow line should be placed to have the best impact for manufacturer, retailer and consumer. He'll also look at whether dividing a cart into additional categories proves even more effective.