Opinion: Supermarkets are experts at luring customers with the promise of a good bargain, and nudging them towards certain deals once they’re inside – but what if supermarkets were legally required to nudge their customers toward healthier products, or prevented from nudging us toward the unhealthy food?

They could, of course, if it made commercial sense to do so. There are certainly no shortages of supermarket promotions in-store and online trying to grab our attention. Strategically positioned half-price bananas in the entranceway? Good! But the specials on ultra-processed foods that end up costing us all more in the long run are not so good. Should our government step in to rebalance the deals so they support our health rather than retailer profits?

Most Kiwis shop at supermarkets at least once a week. With thousands of choices at our fingertips, navigating the store to find the products we want can feel overwhelming, but certain products will grab shoppers’ attention.

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Nudging shoppers towards particular food and drinks takes many forms. Entering the store, we face displays of carefully chosen products. Perhaps we also grab this week’s mailer advertising the latest specials. More selected products are placed in prominent locations throughout the store, such as end-of-aisle displays, in freestanding bins, in the middle eye-level shelves, and around the checkouts. Certain products also contribute points to loyalty card programmes, while pricing deals directly translate into saved dollars.

It makes complete commercial sense for supermarkets to do this, as such promotions work. We recently investigated the effect of in-store promotions on product sales in New Zealand supermarkets, looking at products that were promoted in any given week. We found that promotional displays, discounted prices and deals, and weekly mailers each increased sales by 2 to 2.5 times, while using all three promotion types at the same time increased sales about fourfold. Clearly, promotions drive sales, and what we put in our mouth.

Kiwis shopping online are not immune to promotional nudging either. Online shopping is a relatively new platform for groceries, but increasingly popular. On the main webpage, retailers advertise deals of the week and weekly mailers. Shoppers can also filter search results by promotion, brand or price. Personally tailored suggestions of other products to buy are offered to customers who sign in and use their loyalty card.

Add to all this the ads on social media, on the backs and sides of buses, on billboards, and personalised promotional emails, and even the savviest shoppers can find themselves in a marketing tornado. Most shoppers don’t have the time or know-how to select what is not just good for their pocket but also their health.

The UK is leading the way in this area, being the first country to introduce legislation to limit unhealthy food and drink supermarket promotions in-store and online. The UK has already introduced an industry levy on sugary drinks and programmes that set maximum sodium and sugar content limits in foods.

We know that eating mostly whole, less processed foods is good for our health and the planet, and that most of the food and drink available for sale in New Zealand and countries with similar Western diets are not such traditional staples. Our food supply is dominated by highly processed products high in added fats, sugars and salt, that are high in calories but of little nutritional value.

The poor state of our food supply accounts for the high rates of diet-related diseases in New Zealand. What can we do about this, to lessen the profits-driven influences on our national nutrition? Some progress has been made in front-of-pack nutrition labelling to support healthier choices, such as the Health Star Rating labels. In recent years we have also seen examples of some healthier initiatives by supermarkets, such as free fruit for kids and confectionary-free checkouts, but these aren’t enough to translate into a healthier population diet overall.

The New Zealand Government’s hands-off approach to regulating industry places responsibility on individuals to choose healthier options, with isolated voluntary initiatives reaching only a few shoppers. All the while, our healthcare expenditure on treating diet-related diseases keeps growing.

Some would argue supermarkets exist to sell food and provide shoppers with choice, and their owners aren’t responsible for our diets or health. They would also argue that introducing restrictions could put retailers and consequently shareholders at a business disadvantage. But government legislation limiting promotions of unhealthy products would only need to set a level playing field for all supermarket chains, which would minimise negative business effects, while simultaneously having a positive effect on our national health, reducing the risk of diet-related diseases and associated healthcare costs.

The UK is leading the way in this area, being the first country to introduce legislation to limit unhealthy food and drink supermarket promotions in-store and online. The UK has already introduced an industry levy on sugary drinks and programmes that set maximum sodium and sugar content limits in foods.

We need similar strong government leadership in New Zealand, a country that, like the UK, has high rates of diet-related diseases that have been steadily growing in recent years. But – unlike New Zealand which considers food choices an individual responsibility – the UK recognises the powerful impact that promotional practices have on all our food choices.

So are promotions on unhealthy products a good deal? No, they are not. The long-term price we will all have to pay far outweighs today’s attractive specials. And at some point, we won’t be able to afford that deal.

Magda Rosin is a doctoral candidate at the School of Population Health, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland, and a registered dietitian.

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