(01/15/21) BATON ROUGE, La. — The start of a new year is a traditional time to make resolutions, and resolving to live healthier is a typical commitment. The way some foods are stocked, shelved and marketed could be undermining the success of those trying to make healthful choices in 2021.
A new study by LSU and LSU AgCenter researchers found that sugar-sweetened beverages, with their wide availability, low prices and prominent advertisement strategies, can be hard to resist.
Bailey Houghtaling, an assistant professor in the LSU AgCenter School of Nutrition and Food Sciences, led an interdisciplinary team of researchers to look at stocking and marketing practices of sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, sports and energy drinks, and some fruit juices.
“This study was part of a larger project to inform a national research agenda for healthy retail,” Houghtaling said. The study was funded by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Houghtaling said the overarching conclusion of the study is these beverages should not be as prominent as they are.
The issue with these products from a nutritional standpoint, she said, is they typically have more grams of added sugar in one container than what the American Heart Association and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend for one day.
“We know that most of Americans’ added sugar intake comes from sugar-sweetened beverages,” she said. “We also know from some of our consumption data there are disparities in who is consuming them.”
Houghtaling said how things are stocked, where they are located and what kind of marketing is used helps drive consumer selection and consumption behavior.
Through their review of original research about stocking and marketing practices used to sell sugar-sweetened beverages in U.S. food stores, the researchers found the sale of these beverages is encouraged by their wide availability in retail settings when compared with other products — specifically, healthier beverage alternatives.
Strategies for selling these products included comparatively low pricing, sales and discount strategies, and advertisements.
The study also found that the larger the store, the more retail space was given to these drinks.
“The supermarket is the gold standard of what we want to see in communities, but they have more space to market these sugar-sweetened beverages,” Houghtaling said.
The study also revealed differences by income, race and ethnicity, with lower-income and racial and ethnic minority communities exposed to a greater number of sugar-sweetened beverage products, lower prices and more advertisements. These products also were more prominent in stores in the southeastern region of the U.S., according to comparisons of store availability by region.
The researchers recommend public health and policy intervention to reduce the prominence of sugar-sweetened beverages in retail spaces.
Houghtaling said taxes on these beverages have been shown to be effective.
“It doesn’t seem that beverage companies and retailers use additional promotions to sell these products when a tax is introduced, which demonstrates an opportunity to favorably change the food environment without the need for additional policy strategies,” she said.
She also said changing stocking requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-authorized retailers could help because they must follow certain requirements for food and beverage stocking.
So, what about those healthy resolutions?
“People may have great intentions for healthy choices, but overall, the food environment sets them up to fail in a lot of ways,” Houghtaling said. “And one may have a more difficult time keeping goals depending on the community you live in.”
She said water is always a good substitute for a soft drink, “but if you still want that carbonated feel, try sparkling, flavored water with no added sugars or 100% fruit juice.”
Houghtaling worked with Denise Holston, assistant professor in the LSU AgCenter School of Nutrition and Food Sciences; Danyi Qi and Jerrod Penn, assistant professors in the LSU AgCenter Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness; Courtney Szocs, assistant professor in the LSU Department of Marketing; and Valisa Hedrick, assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise.