Labeling, promotion help increase sales of healthy foods in small study

The labeling and in-store promotion of both healthy foods and low-sodium, low-fat, or lower-sugar-content food choices can increase sales of promoted food items, according to a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

The findings, published on the website of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, suggest an economically feasible model for promoting healthier food purchases.

"Many people, particularly those who live in low-income neighborhoods, have limited access to healthy foods," said Pamela Surkan, lead author of the study and assistant professor in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "We wanted to develop an intervention that could help make healthy choices easier for consumers."

The Eat Right—Live Well! campaign was developed and studied by a collaboration of researchers from JHU's Bloomberg School of Public Health and Carey Business School, and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

For the study, researchers analyzed sales data from two supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore. One store implemented the Eat Right—Live Well! campaign, which was designed to promote healthy food purchasing. The other was used as a control for comparison. Investigators examined sales data over a three-year period both prior to and after the interventions were in place. The Eat Right—Live Well! interventions included special signage and product labeling, employee training, nutrition education, community outreach, and in-store taste testing.

Overall, the researchers saw a 28 percent increase in the sale of "high-fidelity" foods in the intervention store compared to a 6 percent increase in the control store during the study period. High-fidelity foods were those products in which an item's healthy qualities were identified through shelf labeling more than 75 percent of the time. These foods included fruits and vegetables, snack foods, desserts, and condiments. Low-fidelity foods, which included grains and dairy, rose 1.7 percent in the intervention store and 7.5 percent in the control store over the same period. Taste testing proved to be a less effective intervention. Sales of taste-tested items decreased 5.5 percent in the intervention store and 26 percent in the control store.

"Our study shows that Eat Right—Live Well! campaign can have a positive impact on a store's bottom line, as well as the societal benefit of promoting healthier food choices," said study author Kevin Frick, professor and vice dean for education at the Carey Business School. "Cities or districts looking to entice new food retailers could offer incentives for businesses to provide labeling of healthy foods and complementary education."