Shifts in the Supermarket Aisles as Demand for Low-Calorie Options Grows

Jun 16, 2015, 10:50 AM, Posted by

Research shows that supermarkets are responding to the growing demand for lower-calorie options, and that healthier options are good for their bottom line.

Older man shopping in grocery store.

At a very basic level, obesity is about an imbalance. Calories in and calories out need to be balanced, and if they’re not, we run the risk of gaining unhealthy weight. Now, that sounds simple, but of course we know it’s not. There’s so much that goes into the choices people, particularly children, are able to make about what they eat and drink and how much they move. The neighborhoods we live in―and where we buy foods and beverages―play an enormous role.

U.S. customers spend over $638 billion in supermarkets every year, so these stores have a major impact on what we all eat and drink every day. A recent report shows that, in keeping with recent changes to consumer demand, supermarkets are increasing their sales of lower-calorie items, and seeing financial benefits because of it.

Between 2009 and 2013, lower-calorie foods and beverages drove the bulk of supermarket sales growth, 59 percent, compared with just 41 percent for higher-calorie items. They also made up 58 percent of total supermarket sales.

This is great news, as it shows supermarkets are responding to the growing demand for lower-calorie options, and that their business performance is benefitting as a result.

But the report also shows supermarkets are not making as much progress when it comes to the foods and beverages that contribute the most calories to the diets of children and teens. Among these items, things like desserts, pizza, snacks, and beverages, higher-calorie items made up 70 percent of sales―lower-calorie ones, just 30 percent.

As Hank Cardello, the lead author, put it, “retailers and manufacturers need to place greater focus on lower-calorie versions of products.” And not just because it will be better for kids’ health. The research shows that if supermarkets grow their sales of lower-calorie items it will be better for their business too.

Cardello makes a few recommendations for how supermarkets might go about doing just that: give lower-calorie items more prominent shelf placement, highlight them on in-store ads and displays, and sell more of them in check-out lanes.

These recommendations mesh well with recommendations on responsible food marketing that Healthy Eating Research published earlier this year. The recommendations point to the need to better define what constitutes food marketing to children and provides examples of ways retailers can promote healthier foods. For example, the authors suggested displaying healthier items at kids’ eye levels, and as part of store display ads or checkout lines. 

So similar strategies can be used both to help kids make healthier choices, and to provide a boost to supermarket sales. That seems like the definition of a win-win effort. As supermarkets make these shifts, they also need to sell more items that are not just lower-calorie, but are also healthy and nutritious. Ensuring that all children are able to grow up at a healthy weight will require making healthy foods and beverages the affordable, available, and desired choice in all stores. Supermarkets must play a leading role in that effort.

Victoria Brown, is a senior program officer, working to engage business around health for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.