Neighborhood availability of energy-dense snack foods linked to residents' weight status

Neighborhood availability of energy-dense snack foods linked to residents’ weight status
Healthscaping – Issue 4
September 1, 2009

Those who fault cravings and brightly-colored packaging for their decision to purchase a chocolate bar or a salty bag of potato chips may have a new decision-influencing culprit to blame, the amount of shelf-space their neighborhood stores dedicate to displaying calorie-dense items.

Results of a recent study by the Prevention Research Center (PRC) at Tulane University indicate that after controlling for individual and household-level characteristics, the amount of shelf-space dedicated to energy-dense foods within 1 kilometer of a person's residence is positively associated with body mass index (BMI). Specifically, an additional 100 meters of shelf-space provided for energy-dense snacks is associated with an increase in 0.1 BMI units.

Some previous public health research supports the notion that access to supermarkets is inversely associated with BMI and positively associated with quality of diet. On the contrary, access to convenience stores has been shown to be positively associated with BMI.

Diego Rose, Paul Hutchinson, and colleagues at Tulane’s PRC wanted to expand on this understanding by incorporating research in the field of marketing, which shows that the shelf space devoted to a given product influences the amount that consumers purchase.

Part of a larger study on the impact of neighborhood alcohol and food environments on behaviors and health outcomes, Tulane University PRC's data collection ran from October 2004 to August 2005 and focused on urban census tracts in Southeastern Louisiana. A total of 103 urban tracts were randomly selected for sampling. Each tract's retail outlets that sold food were mapped and in-store surveys and telephone surveys of residents in the study tracts were conducted.

Stores were grouped by type, such as supermarkets, small food stores, or convenience stores. Researchers conducted in-store surveys where they recorded total floor space and length of shelf space for both fresh and canned fruits and vegetables and four categories of snack foods – candies, salty snacks, cookies and pasties, and sodas. Households from the study area that were listed in public directories were randomly selected for telephone surveys, and an adult resident in each household was asked to report their weight, height, whether they had a car, and other basic demographic information.

Researchers found households in the study area had significantly greater access to snack food items than fruits and vegetables. Specifically, residents could find about twice as much candy as vegetables and four times as much candy as fruits.

While modest, there was a significant association between neighborhood availability of energy-dense snack foods within 1 kilometer and BMI. Significant associations between shelf space and BMI were also found when snacks were studied by specific category – salty snacks, candies and soda.

No significant relationship between availability of fruits and vegetables and BMI was found. This may be due to the fact that fruits and vegetables are more likely to be planned purchases than energy-dense snack foods, which people often purchase on impulse.

Consistent with prior research, this study shows that the availability of energy-dense foods is associated with BMI, lending support for policy interventions that seek to reduce the excess availability of such foods.

Click here to download a copy of “Neighborhood food environments and Body Mass Index: the importance of in-store contents.”

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