During the holiday season it's more important than ever that consumers consider the fundamental force driving the obesity epidemic in America: the tsunami of novel strategies used to market food. When shopping for holiday food, keep in mind that the treats being proffered by that smiling, life-sized Santa cutout in the aisle of your favorite supermarket may not be the healthiest gift for you and your waistline.
During the holiday season, a time when overindulgence is a tradition for many, food marketing creates especially serious challenges for people trying to limit their intake and make careful decisions about healthier eating. Walk through any supermarket or big box store this time of year and it's impossible not to be confronted with promotions for fatty appetizers and snacks, processed cookies and cakes, holiday themed sugary drinks and cereals and super-sized chocolates and candy canes.
To be sure, it is ultimately up to individuals whether to reach for that highly processed treat that is all but devoid of nutritional value. Yet the common belief that everyone has the capacity to consciously and independently control what they buy or how much and what they eat is challenged by studies that have proven that people's choices are heavily influenced by the setting, context, framing, and characteristics of the environment in which they make these decisions. This is a problem all year, of course, but it becomes even more difficult to resist in-store temptation when it is bathed in images of holiday good cheer.
Food purchasing environments are controlled by the food industry, whose goal, like all other businesses, is to increase profits. And the food industry is free to craft a seasonal marketing environment that portrays poor nutritional choices as cherished holiday traditions without regard for the consequences on consumers' health.
In the early 1980s, manufacturers discovered that how their products were marketed in stores was among the most important factors in influencing the buying habits of consumers. That fueled an acceleration in the practice of buying supermarket shelf space, a deal in which retailers give preferred placement to the products of wholesalers who pay for it. The ends of aisles, near the check out lines and stand-alone floor displays are choice product locations. This is how that Santa cutout ends up hawking candy canes in the middle of the produce section.
People are very sensitive to such displays. As a consequence, purchases from these locations are between two and five times higher than when the same items are placed elsewhere. The products displayed in this way comprise an estimated 30 percent of all supermarket sales and provide the largest profits for manufacturers. They also disproportionately feature highly processed, low-nutrient, “value added” products — the worst for your health. People typically do not recognize that placement figures in their selection of such products, and instead, tend to blame themselves when their holiday shopping trip yields enough fat and sugar to swell even Santa's ample waistline.
With increasing demand from manufacturers for this premium shelf space, supermarkets have grown larger and larger. The growing variety of products, especially when the holidays are here, can lead people to resort to a type of cognitive processing that relies on mental shortcuts instead of thoughtful decisions. This can lead to impulsive, poor choices based upon superficial characteristics like appearance, pricing, and salience. Thus, the modern supermarket is an environment that increases the risk of chronic diseases all year, but especially now.
Unless we grow our own food, we humans have a limited capacity to avoid exposure to these risk factors. The burden on individuals to keep up their guard, to be wary, and to actively resist an overwhelming food environment has become more than most of us can bear. If we really want to help consumers achieve their long-term goals of controlling their weight and eating a diet that won't lead to heart disease or diabetes, we need solutions that won't force people to work so hard.
So how do we make it easier? We need very specific consumer research on how to place products in stores so they don't overwhelm consumers. Maybe we should segregate all the foods known to increase the risk of chronic diseases from the foods that don't. Then people who want to limit their exposure can do so, and those who don't will still be able to choose what they want. Maybe we should set limits on which products can be placed in salient promotional displays. Would consumers feel that their rights had been abridged if they had to travel to the back of the store to get candy and soda, but could find skim milk right up front?
Ordinarily our society does not tolerate flawed designs or business practices that increase the risk of illness or injury. We should no longer accept food marketing practices that undermine our health. As the most important consumer season gets underway, we need to start mitigating these factors if we want better health in 2014.
Deborah A. Cohen, M.D., is a senior natural scientist at the RAND Corporation and the author of the forthcoming book, A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Influences Behind the Obesity Epidemic — and How We Can End It.
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.