CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Five years after being chastised for being a source of unhealthy food choices, the convenience-store industry got a reprieve this week in the form of a new study that shows most junk food is purchased at grocery stores.
The study, described in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, challenges the “food desert” hypothesis, which says a lack of access to supermarkets and grocery stores in some communities worsens the obesity crisis by restricting people’s access to healthy foods.
Looking at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the study included 4,204 adults in the United States who reported their daily food intake in two nonconsecutive 24-hour periods in 2011 and 2012. Coincidentally, that was around the same time first lady Michelle Obama was focusing on the issue of childhood obesity and better food choices through her Let's Move program. She praised a push for more grocery stores in underserved communities and publicly cited convenience stores as "places with few, if any, healthy options."
The new study found that nearly half (46.3%) of U.S. adults consume sugar-sweetened beverages and 88.8% eat discretionary foods such as cookies, pastries, ice cream, cakes, popcorn and candy on any given day. And they reported buying the bulk of those products at supermarkets and grocery stores.
“Supermarket purchases of these items are about two to four times as large as all the other sources—fast-food restaurants, full-service restaurants, convenience stores, vending machines and other locations—combined,” said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Ruopeng An, who led the study.
The food-desert hypothesis has led the U.S. government to spend almost $500 million since 2011 to improve access to supermarkets and grocery stores in underserved communities. States and municipalities also have made efforts to increase the supply of healthy foods, offering financial incentives to build new grocery stores or to increase the amount of fresh food available in convenience stores and gas stations, for example.
“It is true that supermarkets also are the largest source of healthy food,” An said. “But we can’t be naïve and think that people only purchase healthy food from supermarkets. They also buy all this junk food from supermarkets and grocery stores.”
Adding fruit and vegetables improves the diet, An said. “But from the standpoint of obesity prevention, it is only helpful if people replace junk food with healthy food,” he said. “We don’t see from our data that the presence of a supermarket has a preventive effect on people’s obesity or their junk-food intake.”
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