National multi-city study finds energy dense snack foods are everywhere

National multi-city study finds energy dense snack foods are everywhere
Healthscaping – Issue 6
January 26, 2010

Americans today don't have to look hard to find high-calorie snack foods – shy of jumping off the shelves into customers' hands, they just about find them.

The fact that Americans consume many calories away from home snacking and drinking sweetened beverages is not a little known secret, but knowledge of the magnitude of the problem is limited. The Prevention Research Center (PRC) at Tulane University conducted a study to investigate the availability and accessibility of energy-dense snacks in retail stores, and how these stores vary by type, geographical region and socioeconomic factors.

Researchers at a total of 19 PRCs across the country found snack food was available in 41 percent of the retail stores observed. In particular, 96 percent of pharmacies, 94 percent of gasoline stations, 22 percent of furniture stores and 16 percent of apparel stores sold snack foods. Of these snack foods, candy was the most commonly found category at 33 percent, with sweetened beverages at a 20 percent frequency, and salty snacks at a 17 percent frequency. There was some variance in availability depending on the region, but not by racial or socioeconomic factors.

Conducted from 2007 to 2008, this study was a convenience sample of cities based on location of PRCs and availability of volunteers. A total of eight commercial intersections were selected in each of the chosen cities, and observer teams completed 10 observations in eligible stores in six of the eight commercial intersections.

Observers took note of the primary merchandise sold, and the availability of snacks and sweetened beverages. Accessibility was measured by determining whether foods were available for free, within an arm's reach of the cash register, and whether cold beverages were available.

Food was sold in arm's reach of the cash register in 32 percent to 65 percent of the stores. In nearly a quarter of the stores, candy was offered to customers at no charge.

Socioeconomic status was assigned to store clusters by using 2000 US census data, but was not shown to have any impact on the availability of snack foods. However, region did impact food availability, with the highest availability in the Midwest.

"With a national obesity rate of about one-third of adults, we have to consider the impact of our environment," said Lauren Futrell Dunaway, program manager for the Tulane PRC, "A person who enters a home goods store to buy a mop shouldn't be confronted with a candy bar at the checkout counter."

Research supports the idea that the availability and accessibility of food strongly influences people's diets. Impulsively eating an average 250 calorie snack without compensating calories at meal times or exercising can lead to significant weight gain over time.

The food environment must be broadened to include retail stores who sell food as a secondary type of merchandise. These outlets have made energy-dense snack foods ubiquitous, and may be responsible for poor eating habits that contribute to obesity.

Click here to download the American Journal of Public Health article by Thomas A. Farley, MD, MPH, Erin T. Baker, MS, Lauren Futrell, RD, MPH, and Janet C. Rice, PhD.

Click here to sign up for “Healthscaping.”

Topics:   diet , nutrition , obesity , food environment

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