Scanning through your grocery store’s weekly sales circular before shopping can save you a lot of money. But at what cost? A new study says buying what your store puts on sale could come at a steep price – to your health.

The new research report is the latest in a string of studies to call out grocery circulars for featuring primarily unhealthy food, which the authors say encourages us to make unhealthy purchases to maintain an unhealthy diet.

The study is featured in the scientific journal BMC Public Health. The researchers focused on grocery sales circulars in western Sweden – but their findings echo similar studies conducted in the United States and elsewhere.

Out of nearly 30,000 individual food items featured in hundreds of sales circulars, about two thirds of them were categorized by the researchers as “unhealthy.” The biggest offenders were processed meat, sugary beverages, salty food and alcohol.

Grocery discounts are “particularly important, especially in times of soaring food prices,” the authors observed. But not all purchasing decisions are “conscious,” they argued. The products that are promoted may look more appealing, and may be more likely to land on a shopper’s list than healthier products that might be out of sight, out of mind. Therefore, “there is an urgent need for supermarkets to shift promotions toward healthier food items,” the study concludes.


It’s certainly not just a Swedish phenomenon. A study published last year by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine warned that “the types of foods advertised in U.S. supermarket circulars do not reflect national guidelines for diet quality because they over-represent items linked with poorer health, such as items high in sodium and added sugars, and under-represent foods linked with better health, such as fruits and vegetables.” That study examined more than 86,000 individual food items and found that nearly half were highly processed.

And the list goes on. Another study last year found that 60% of foods advertised in Canadian grocery store circulars did not meet that country’s nutritional guidelines. Still another study found less than a third of advertised grocery products in Brazil were natural or minimally processed. Similar percentages of unhealthy versus healthier foods were found in 2021 studies in Belgium and the Netherlands.

So it’s not a phenomenon that’s unique to any one part of the world. More like a phenomenon that’s unique to one particular industry, that regularly makes temptingly bad-for-you foods even more tempting by putting them on sale and prominently advertising them.

The Canadian and Belgian studies each added the interesting observation that circular covers tend to feature healthier items than the inside pages. Grocery stores like to emphasize the freshness of their produce, for example, and colorful fruit and leafy greens can be more visually appealing and attention-grabbing on the front page of a weekly ad, than a more mundane box of cereal or jar of jelly. The Netherlands study added a couple of additional twists, in observing that less-healthy products are more frequently promoted via “volume-based promotions,” like buy-one-get-one-free, or 10 for $10, encouraging shoppers to make even more unhealthy purchases. And discount grocers were more likely to promote less healthy products than traditional grocery chains – more than 80% of discount grocery promotions in that study were found to be less-than-healthy.

Why would this be? Do grocery stores want us to be unhealthy? The major manufacturers that fund promotions and coupons tend to produce the packaged foods that aren’t as good for you as healthier foods like lean meat and fresh produce, which don’t have the major manufacturers’ promotional budgets. So the deepest discounts and the most frequently advertised products tend to be those produced by the major manufacturers. Plus, the American study observed, “it may be that grocers and/or food manufacturers seek to persuade consumers, through advertising, to purchase these highly processed products given that they may be particularly profitable, because their commodity ingredients tend to be quite cheap and because they may be habit forming for consumers.”

So a half dozen academic studies that all seem to agree with each other, can’t be easily dismissed. What should be done about the phenomenon, though, will be up to government regulators, the grocery stores themselves, and shoppers. So the next time you’re browsing your grocery store’s weekly circular, buyer beware – when it comes to your health, those promotional prices may not always turn out to be the bargains that they seem.

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