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Grocery Shopping From Home Can Undermine Healthy Eating Goals

Online grocery promos target unhealthy products, report finds.

Online grocery shopping and nutrition

With more people than ever trading in the pushcart for a virtual one, it’s concerning to learn that marketing and promotions on online grocery platforms are flaunting less-than-stellar choices. Consider an investigation from the nonprofit group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

In evaluating a variety of major retailers, the CSPI found that more than half (51%) of food and beverage promotions were for unhealthy products and 58% of products appearing prominently in search results were nutritional duds. Among email promotions, 76% were for unhealthy products. For instance, top search results for chicken on a company’s website turned up info for chicken patties and nuggets rather than fresh chicken. Additionally, the CSPI found that retailers offered up heavier discounts for unhealthy foods and drinks than for healthy ones.

The health watchdog group examined promotional data and pricing from six national retailers in the Washington, D.C., metro area (Amazon Prime Now, FreshDirect, Peapod, Safeway, Target and Walmart Grovery) with a focus on five staple foods: milk, bread, cereal, drinks and chicken.

Marketing and promotional dollars from large companies selling packaged foods via e-commerce will continue to be a vital revenue source for grocers. The CSPI is therefore urging—perhaps through federal regulation—an increase in online advertising dollars directed toward better-for-you items, to support healthy diets. Many grocers offer suggestions and search results based on past purchase history, meaning that if customers are better educated to make healthy online buys from a particular retailer, they are more likely to see promotions for nutritious products pop up on their screens.

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a James Beard Award–winning food journalist, dietitian and author of the cookbook Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sport + Adventure (VeloPress 2016). He has written for dozens of magazines, including Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Shape, Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness.

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