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Healthier holidays

Graduate student: Make food retail environments, healthy environments

Student Life

By Asia Holloway

With Halloween behind us, mini-chocolate bars and chips displays have been replaced with sugar cookies, candy canes and gingerbread at our grocery stores.

From October until April, we enter into a holiday sugar rush as Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter fill supermarket shelves with candies, chocolates, sweets and treats.

Food retail environments

Increased consumption of sugar, fat, salt and preservatives during these holiday seasons often seems unavoidable, uncontrollable and a fault of individuals for making poor health choices for themselves and their families.

However, it has long been understood that such lifestyle explanations of health are too simplistic and ignore important social and structural contexts. Regulations around structural contexts (such as grocery stores) are an important step to improving population health.

Food retail environments, or the locations where we buy our food, influence our food choices. These stores use strategic marketing to promote the consumption of unhealthy foods.

“Of particular concern are rates of childhood obesity, which have almost tripled in the past 30 years.”

Factors such as shelf display, product placement, appearance on the shelf and shelf-based scarcity affect customer choices. Food retail environments employ these strategies, often making unhealthy foods accessible and healthy foods inaccessible.

While occasional treats are not harmful to health, an annual seven-month period of prolonged holiday junk food could have health implications. High-calorie, low-nutrient junk foods (such as holiday treats) may contribute to rising obesity rates in Canada.

Of particular concern are rates of childhood obesity, which have almost tripled in the past 30 years. Long-term health effects of childhood obesity include high blood pressure, type II diabetes, breathing problems, depression and low self-esteem.

“There are currently no regulations around the marketing or layout of products within food retail environments in Canada.”

To address increasing childhood obesity rates, we must regulate the food retail environments that perpetuate obesogenic food landscapes.

To my knowledge, there are currently no regulations around the marketing or layout of products within food retail environments in Canada.

Possible policy solution: the CFIA

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) aims to protect Canadians from preventable health risks related to food.

Currently, the agency focuses on acute illnesses, such as food poisoning and parasites, by monitoring food sanitation and safety procedures. An expanded role of the CFIA into chronic illnesses could impact obesity rates in Canada.

Health inspectors consult a rubric or checklist when conducting health inspections in food retail settings.

By adding regulations on marketing, placement and layout to this rubric, CFIA health inspectors could play a vital role in improving the health of Canadian food retail environments, particularly around holiday times.

Possible rubric items could include the following:

  • Containment of unhealthy treats to one area within food retail environments, rather than their dispersal throughout the store. Leading up to the holidays, unhealthy foods can be found scattered throughout grocery stores. By containing treats to one area, unhealthy temptations are minimized.
  • Mandatory distance of junk food from point-of-sale. An overwhelming majority of grocery stores that I’ve visited have strategically placed, easy-to-grab junk food items near the cash register. This tempts shoppers to make unhealthy, last minute purchases.
  • Mandatory healthy food displays. Not only could CFIA health inspectors discourage the promotion of unhealthy foods, but also encourage the promotion of health foods. Eye-catching displays of healthy foods, placed in strategic locations, could encourage the purchase of healthier food options. For example, a festive Christmas vegetable displays of broccoli, cauliflower and radishes.

I understand that this suggestion creates additional work for health inspectors and the CFIA.

However, as health inspectors are already required to make visits to food retail settings to determine their health and safety, this option seems to require the least amount of resources, while maintaining objectivity and accountability.

Without long-term, policy-based solutions to unhealthy food retail environments, food marketing strategies will continue to impact Canadians’ health and well-being.

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