Grocery Store Coupons Encourage Unhealthy Eating

Miriam E. Tucker

January 13, 2014

Grocery stores in the United States could be doing a better job of promoting healthful eating by changing the types of online coupons they offer their customers, a new study suggests.

An analysis of over 1000 online coupons from 6 national grocery chains finds that the vast majority of the coupons were for discounts on snack foods, candies, desserts, prepared meals, cereals, and beverages, and very few were for fruits or vegetables.

The results were published online January 9 in Preventing Chronic Disease by Andrea López and Hilary K. Seligman, MD, from the division of general internal medicine, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

"Coupons influence consumer purchases, both by discounting price and by acting as an 'information stimulant,' reminding consumers of the product… Grocery retailers may be uniquely positioned to positively influence Americans' dietary patterns," write Ms. López and Dr. Seligman, both also affiliated with the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations.

Changing Coupons Will Encourage Healthy Eating

The pair analyzed 1056 online coupons available during a nonholiday 4-week period (April 2013). They looked just at coupons from the 6 grocery store chains themselves and not manufacturers' coupons, since those aren't offered for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Snack foods, candies, and desserts accounted for 25% of all the online coupons. Another 14% were for prepared meals, and 11% for cereals. Of the 12% of coupons that were for beverages, over half were for sodas, juices, and energy/sports drinks.

In contrast, just 3% of the coupons were for vegetables, 1% for unprocessed meats, and less than 1% for fruits.

Almost one-third of all shoppers now use online coupons, either printed from the computer or redeemed electronically using loyalty cards. Because food prices are known to influence consumption, changing the types of online coupons offered holds major potential for influencing Americans' eating habits, Ms. López and Dr. Seligman say.

Grocery stores might have some difficulty in offering coupons for fresh fruits and vegetables because their pricing varies and is unpredictable. On the other hand, wastage of perishable produce is built into the pricing, and supermarkets lose an estimated $15 billion annually in unsold produce.

"Consumers and retailers may both benefit from stronger incentives for purchasing perishable food items," the investigators say.

This research received no specific grant funding from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or nonprofit sectors.

Prev Chronic Dis. Published January 9, 2014. Article

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