Supermarket swizz: how we’re tempted to spend big on unhealthy food

The pastry and bread aisle often smells wonderful in the supermarket

Find out the tricks that supermarkets use to make us buy too much junk food, and check out our dietitian’s tips for a more mindful shop.

Around 85% of people in the UK shop at least weekly for food in-store at supermarkets, which means the way these shops are laid out and set up has a huge influence on the nation’s health.

As a result of new laws implemented in October 2022, and some consumer pressure, supermarkets have started moving less healthy options – like chocolate and crisps – away from the checkout and other prominent places around the shop.

But are our shopping choices still being influenced by our environment? We know that the supermarkets have other ways to tempt us into making less healthy choices, as we reveal below.

And this is important for cancer prevention, because what we eat and how much we weigh can have a big impact on our risk of developing certain cancers.

Supermarkets are markets in both senses of the word – they are places to buy and sell things, but they are also places where consumers are being marketed to by producers.

Kendra Chow, an expert in World Cancer Research Fund’s policy team and a registered dietitian, says: “We tend to think of the individual shops where we get our groceries, but actually supermarkets are part of the whole food system around us – from producers and multinational food companies with a turnover of billions, to governments and regulatory bodies, right down to the consumer.

“Supermarkets tend to be a bit of a middle-man in this situation. For example, they can rent out shelf space, so what we see at eye-level – and are more likely to buy – is in some cases pre-determined by food corporations.”

How your shopping environment may influence what you buy

Your nose doesn’t always know best

Wafting aromas of freshly-baked bread when you enter a shop encourage you to head straight to the bakery section. And smell can also make us feel hungry, which can encourage us to buy more than we need.

Kendra says:

When distractions crop up during your shop try to stay focused on your shopping list, or think about the meals you’re planning to prepare so as not to stray away from your original plan and buy extras you don’t need.

Getting the healthy bit done first?

The fruit and veg aisle is often where we begin our shop. Why’s that? Well, adding apples and pears at the start of your shop can make you feel you’ve satisfied your trolley’s healthy food quota, and can stock up on less healthy foods as you make your way around the aisles.

Our evidence shows that the healthiest diets contain lots of fruit, vegetables and fibre – we recommend making wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and pulses – such as beans and lentils – a major part of your daily diet, and not just an add on.

Kendra says:

When going through the aisles, don’t forget to stock up on frozen or tinned options, like vegetables, fruit and legumes – these options are just as healthy as fresh. If you go for tinned fruit, choose ones packed in water and not syrup, and for vegetables avoid any added salt.

We also shouldn’t feel guilty about buying things from the bakery, or foods not on our shopping lists here and there. Restrictive eating is quite unhealthy itself. When you shop, choose healthy options most often, and enjoy everything in moderation.

Hiding the eggs

Eggs in the supermarket

Ever popped in to buy just one thing, and come out with 2 large bags of shopping? There’s a reason that happens! Supermarkets regularly move some of the most popular items, such as eggs, to make you wander the aisles picking up impulse buys as you go. Avoid this by make a shopping list and sticking to it as you go through the shop.

Meal deals aren’t the real deal

On the surface, meal deals look ideal when you’re in a hurry and you choose from a pre-defined selection of items in the chiller near the shop’s entrance. However, having crisps and a fizzy drink for lunch each day doesn’t add any valuable nutrition to your meal.

In fact, we have strong evidence that sugary drinks increase your risk of cancer. And for people with a sitting-down job, we know that too much sedentary time can increase your risk of overweight or obesity – this is also a cause of cancer.

It can be cheaper – and much healthier – to make your own lunch.

> Check out all our healthy sandwich ideas

BOGOF buy one get one free

There’s lots of evidence that buy one get one free deals don’t save people money – and we waste a lot of the extras we buy. The UK government announced it is planning to ban BOGOF deals on unhealthy food – but that ban has been delayed until 2025.

> Read why BOGOF deals aren’t doing consumers any favours

Added vitamin D – but what else?

This is more the fault of the food manufacturers than the supermarkets, but it’s still one to be aware of in the shops. Many products shout about their healthy ingredients – yoghurts that contain vitamin D, cereals full of folic acid or fruit pouches containing 1 of your 5 A DAY.

But what they don’t shout about on the packaging is that they may contain high levels of sugar, salt or fat. Read beyond the advertising on the packet – check the food label and pay attention to any traffic light system ratings.

> Get your free guide on how to read food labels

Beware online deals too

You’re not immune to marketing tactics when you shop online, even if the keyboard doesn’t waft out the smell of fresh bread. Be wary of the suggestions that pop up, encouraging you to buy more products than planned, and the tempting banner ads: ‘half price’, ‘big price drop’, as well as Alcohol, Christmas, Party, World Cup, Anything Sale!

Kendra says:

In public health, we want to ‘make the healthy choice the easy choice’. Unfortunately, our current food environments don’t make these options as easy for us as they could, because ultimately there’s much less profit to be made on healthy food.

We need policies to help improve our food environments, but in the meantime, it’s useful to understand the marketing tactics that the food industry and shops use, so that we can navigate and make choices for healthier eating habits.

Kendra’s cancer prevention shopping tips

  • Plan meals and divide up your trolley by following the Healthy Plate model – 1/2 vegetables and fruit (which is just as healthy to eat fresh, frozen or tinned), 1/4 protein (animal or plant-based) and 1/4 whole grains or starches.
  • If you’re trying to cut down on alcohol or fizzy drinks, avoid those aisles completely.
  • Keep a list of the meals you plan to cook that week and avoid buying things that don’t fit the plan.
  • Make shopping lists on your phone, so you never forget to bring them with you.
  • Try to avoid shopping when you’re hungry or tired.
  • Consider shopping at markets that often have good deals on fruit and vegetables – and less packaging (more sustainable and likely less marketing).