Pear in mind: A blog in the public interest

I first learned about ‘food choice architecture’ when I was a sophomore in college, taking a class on public health and nutrition. Essentially, the term describes how food is presented to a consumer and how this influences which food the consumer chooses.  

For example, when you’re in your house and looking for a snack, you may find yourself munching from the bowl of pretzels on your countertop rather than digging through your fridge to wash and cut an apple. At a restaurant, you may find yourself choosing the meal promoted on the menu cover with a high-resolution image and enticing description rather than the meal tucked into a list at the back. At the grocery store, you may find yourself tossing food into your cart that wasn’t on your grocery list but was on the table display when you walked in or in the checkout aisle when you walked out. 

In short, you are more likely to choose the food that is the most accessible, visible, and attractive. This may seem obvious, but what is less obvious is the hand behind the “architecture.” At home, that hand is most likely you. But that’s not true at work, school, restaurants, and certainly not at the grocery store. 

Each year, food and beverage manufacturers pay grocery stores large amounts of money to place their products in prominent store locations like checkout lanes and ends of aisles. These placements are often paired with flashy displays and enticing price promotions. Unfortunately, these products are usually processed and packaged, making unhealthy choices the easier option for consumers.  

A recent CSPI report looked at one product – sugary drinks – to better understand food choice architecture at grocery stores. This pilot study investigated the placement and promotion of soda and sugar-sweetened beverages across 16 grocery stores in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the pilot study was to understand how many times shoppers can encounter sugary drink placements and promotions in a grocery store. 

As a DC resident, I was shocked by the findings. Across all 16 stores in the D.C. metropolitan area, sugar-sweetened beverages appeared in an average of 30 locations and as many as 59 locations within one grocery store. The grocery stores also featured an average of nine price promotions but as many as 32. 

If you’re trying to cut down your intake of sugary drinks– the top source of added sugar in Americans’ diets – you may be able to walk past the soda aisle once without stopping to buy that six-pack of Coke. But if you walk by soda 59 times during your grocery run, it becomes harder to say no and easier to say yes – just as the architect designed. 

But just as beverage companies and grocery stores can push consumers to unhealthy choices, they also can encourage consumers to choose healthy alternatives. As the report notes, manufacturers and retailers can take steps to limit the placement and promotion of sugary drinks by replacing them with water and seltzer, limiting soda to the soda aisle, or eliminating manufacturer coupons that enable price promotions for sugary drinks. Let’s encourage food manufacturers and retailers to be better 'food choice architects' and create environments that support our health. 

Tia Schwab (she/her/hers) develops and implements communications strategies to advance CSPI's local, state, and federal policy campaigns.