It had been well established that infants and young kids are able to naturally adjust their food intake to meet their caloric needs. For example, if a toddler eats a calorie-dense meal, he or she will likely eat fewer calories over the remainder of the day. But, according to Kessler, newer research indicates that this innate ability is eroding in today’s young children, an alarming finding which he attributes to “conditioned hypereating:” children’s regular exposure to today’s large portion sizes and the ever-increasing availability of “stimulating food,” such as candy and highly processed snacks, throughout society.
I don’t know if this new research is yet well-accepted in the scientific community, but any parent knows that today’s kids are tempted by candy and highly processed foods every day, multiple times a day, and in places where food never used to be sold. For example, in response to another of my early TLT posts, “My Love Affair With Stacy, and What It’s Doing to the Kids,” an exasperated mom commented:
The problem is so ubiquitous… I find myself pausing before taking my kids to the carwash, for example (of all places), as they inevitably clamor for doritos; gatorade; sprite, etc., prominently displayed as soon as you enter the waiting area!
And it’s not just the car wash. Candy and junk food are now offered in the check-out aisles of a huge number of retail outlets where, in the past, it would have been completely bizarre to see any food at all: Michael’s craft stores; Bed, Bath & Beyond; Office Depot; Old Navy; Home Depot; and Best Buy, just to name a few. Even high-end department stores are getting into the act by offering “classy” junk food, such as Godiva chocolate bars, at the register.
We’re so inured to this practice that it’s become the new normal. But yesterday the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a terrific new report, Temptation at Check-Out, which asks us to step back and examine this practice with a more critical eye.
Retailers understand very well that by the time consumers arrive at the check-out aisle, they’re primed to make an impulse purchase of junk food. According to the report, here are just a few reasons why: (1) shoppers are captive, having no choice but to pass through a check-out aisle; (2) after making myriad shopping decisions, consumers are likely to be mentally fatigued by the time they get to the register, and that fatigue is proven to lower willpower; (3) the usual kid-eye-level placement of junk food is specifically intended to encourage kids to nag parents for a purchase; and (4) just the sight of junk food is known to stimulate appetite, leading to an impulse purchase.
It all adds up to big profits. According to the report, supermarkets alone make about $5.5 billion annually from check-out sales and that whopping figure doesn’t account the hundreds of non-food outlets which also load up their check-out aisles with junk food. Check-out sales are so lucrative, in fact, that manufactures pay retailers handsomely for the ability to get their products in front of consumers in this particular store location.
I really encourage you to read the CSPI report, which I found fascinating not just as an indictment of the check-out aisle practice, but also as a solid overview of today’s obescogenic food environment. Sprinkled throughout the report are stand-alone quotes from various researchers and experts, many of which resonated powerfully with me as a parent of two growing kids and as a middle-aged person who has to be ever-more-vigilant to maintain her body weight. Here are a few that had me nodding in agreement:
The food environment has become a tsunami. If it doesn’t drown us, it waterlogs even the strongest of swimmers, who have to exert more energy, be more alert and more conscientious than ever before just to stay afloat. – Dr. Deborah Cohen
Even when people are trying to make healthful choices, their ability to resist palatable foods in convenient locations wanes when they are distracted, are under stress, are tired, or have just made other decisions that deplete their cognitive capacity. – Dr. Deborah Cohen
The food industry brings in serious muscle to bully us into eating too much of all the wrong things …. Any conversation about personal responsibility or public policy that fails to acknowledge this reality is either disingenuous, or uninformed. We have not a shred of evidence that the average, loving, busy parent of today is intrinsically less responsible than the average, loving, busy parent of yesterday. Yet that parent of today is far more likely to be obese and/or diabetic, and to have children who are obese and at risk for diabetes. – Dr. David Katz
In addition to releasing the report, CSPI has also launched a new petition specifically targeting Bed, Bath & Beyond for its check-out aisle practices. You can sign that here.
The good news is, this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game for retailers. According to the report, when United Kingdom retailers agreed to stop selling candy in their check-out aisles they found that “English parents have responded positively to changes. . . . When the retailer Lidl tried offering healthy snacks in one checkout aisle in each of its U.K. stores, the junk-free checkouts received 20 percent higher footfall than the junk-laden aisles. Parents strongly supported the change. . . .”
I for one would “strongly support” any American retailer following suit, and I’m guessing many of you would feel the same way. Let me know in a comment below.
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