I used to think of the supermarket as a nutritionally neutral space, where customers could buy everything from carrots to candy and shelf space was allotted according to consumer demand. But it turns out that, at grocery stores, not all foods are equal.

A recent study found that, on average, sugary drinks appear in 25 different places and unhealthy foods in 40 different places in stores.

Forgot to buy bell peppers? You won’t see them again once you leave the produce section. But if you skip the soda aisle, you‘ll keep running into soda. End-of-aisle shelves, displays, and checkout lanes keep reminding you to put some in your cart.

Companies also push unhealthy items like soda, chips, and candy with store circulars, steep discounts, and two-for-one deals.

And retailers target people with fewer resources by running promotions for sugary drinks to coincide with when states issue SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps).

The food industry spends an estimated $50 billion a year on in-store promotions. In the 1960s, roughly 70 percent of food company marketing budgets went to ads and just 30 percent went to in-store marketing. That has now flipped.

That’s why we—the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action’s publisher—launched our Healthy Retail Initiative in 2015.

Among our successes: CVS now dedicates 25 percent of its checkout area to healthier items and Aldi has removed candy from the checkout aisles at its 1,800 locations. What’s more, California-based Raley’s supermarkets has eliminated sugary sodas near the register, replaced 25 percent of candy in checkout aisles with healthier options, and removed sugary items from shoppers’ line of sight in the cereal aisle.

Among the items on our to-do list:

Investigate online groceries. We’re examining online marketing practices like prompts to purchase junk foods and discount pricing for unhealthy items, and whether stores deliver to low-income areas. Although only 6 percent of food sales occur online, online sales are expected to grow rapidly. We want to stop unhealthy promotions before they take hold.

Rate grocers. We’ll grade the top 10 retailers’ in-store practices, to give chains from Walmart to Whole Foods an incentive to improve prices, placements, and promotions and to sell healthier foods.

Our past wins—to improve school food, require calorie labeling at chain restaurants, and ban artificial trans fat—took time. So will our push to get grocery stores to stop undermining people’s intentions to eat well.

But Big Food should know by now not to underestimate us. With your support, we’ll make it easier for all Americans to bring healthy foods home to their families.

Peter G. Lurie, MD, MPH, President
Center for Science in the Public Interest


Our March cover story said that methane persists in the environment 25 times longer than carbon dioxide. In fact, it persists for a shorter time—but is more than 25 times more potent—than CO2.

Photo: Jennifer Urban/CSPI.