Online grocery shopping certainly delivers convenience—and it has been a downright lifesaver during the coronavirus pandemic. What it doesn’t do is support healthful eating. In fact, this in-demand shopping method appears to be doing the opposite—encouraging customers to purchase unhealthy items, with help from all those banner ads, pop-ups, cross-promotions, coupons, enticing images, reviews, and even videos on grocery-delivery websites.
That’s the overall take-home message of a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which evaluated the online marketing tactics of six national grocery retailers—Safeway, Target, Walmart Grocery, FreshDirect, Amazon Prime Now, and Peapod (Giant Food).
The CSPI investigators created customer accounts so they could order food for delivery and then monitored promotions on the retailers’ home and search pages and promotions sent via email; they also assessed the quality of the produce received. Among the findings:
- Out of about 30 promotions per home page, half on average were for unhealthy foods and beverages. (The healthfulness of the products was determined using the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity Vending Standards, which are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.) Safeway had the highest percentage of unhealthy promotions (72 percent), FreshDirect the lowest (29 percent).
- Three-quarters of email promotions overall included unhealthy items. Every Target email included unhealthy items.
- Overall, more than half the products that appeared at the top of search results for five staple foods and beverages (milk, bread, cereal, chicken, and drinks) were unhealthy. For Target, it was almost two-thirds of the products.
- The biggest discounts offered were on unhealthy products. In some cases, the discounts were more than double the average discount on healthy items.
On the bright side, most (81 percent) of the fresh fruits and vegetables delivered were rated to be of good quality, with FreshDirect scoring highest at 90 percent and Safeway lowest at 73 percent.
There are reasons why unhealthy foods and beverages are more heavily promoted online—just as they are in brick-and-mortar grocery stores: Large food companies can afford to pay the trade promotion fees that get them more prominent product placement, and they can give deeper discounts; small companies that market more healthful foods generally can’t.
CSPI is calling for further investigation into how online grocery marketing practices influence purchases and is urging retailers to design their websites to promote healthy foods and to disclose product sponsorships so customers can clearly see what are, in effect, paid advertisements. In the meantime, don’t take online promotions at face value: If available, click on the links to the products’ nutrition information—similar to how we recommend flipping a food package over to read its nutrition label while shopping in-store. And keep your blinders on in the virtual checkout lane, just as we advise you to do in a real one: You never know what junk food will pop up to tempt you.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see Overeating and the Brain.