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They're at my local Winn-Dixie, and I bet you'll find them in your local big chain grocery store, too. Some are color-coded, some have multiple stars, and some rely on some sort of complex algorithm to assign a numerical score that's higher for more nutrient-dense foods (this last one is at Whole Foods, among others). 


 

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Grocery Store Advertising Circulars



several store and manufacturer coupons in a scattered pile. Coins are littered over the pile

Do you clip coupons or look for deals in those weekly grocery store newspaper inserts? You're not alone. Four out of five newspaper readers at least look at those ads, while 2 out of 3 use coupons clipped from those newspaper circulars. That makes those ads very attractive for food advertisers: in 2010 over $1.6 billion was spent on newspaper advertising.

Somewhat paradoxically, quite a few people are told by well-meaning nutritionists to use those advertising circulars as a guide for their menu planning for the week. The goal, of course, is to help people save money by planning to use what is on sale. That makes plenty of sense, financially, but if you're trying to eat more healthfully, will it really help?

A team of researchers collected 51 advertising circulars, one from each state in the U.S. (And Washington, DC), to look at what types of foods were being advertised and compare those foods to the MyPlate governmental recommendations for healthy eating (Appetite 2013;62:160-165). The circulars were all published on a single, non-holiday week in 2011 and were selected from the major grocery chains for each region.

For each circular, the researchers looked at only the first (most often read) page and analyzed the type of foods advertised along with the amount of space each ad occupied on the page. They could then correlate those food types with the state the ad came from and that state's obesity index.

The largest amount of space overall, they found, was devoted to protein foods - mostly beef, poultry, and pork (not fish!). A full 10% of the page was devoted to processed grains such as crackers and cereals, while about the same amount were each allotted to fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, and sweets.

When looking at states with a low obesity ranking (<25% of individuals classified as obese), the researchers noted that their advertising circulars devoted more space to fruits than other regions, while those states with a high obesity ranking (at least 30% of individuals classified as obese) advertised sugar-sweetened beverages more than twice as much as other states with a lower obesity ranking.

For those foods included in the five food groups (dairy, protein foods, grains, fruits, and vegetables), the researchers could then compare the amount of space devoted to each food group and compare that percentage to the comparable food groups' space in the MyPlate icon created by the USDA. As you might expect, advertising space bore little resemblance to the MyPlate icon: protein space in the ads was much larger than the space for protein in the MyPlate icon, while the ads for dairy, fruit, and vegetables were all much smaller than their recommended space.

What this means for you

It's debatable whether advertising circulars like these cause people to make certain food choices or if they simply reflect prevailing tastes. Either way, don't use grocery store circulars to decide what to eat. Better to make your meal plan and see if any of that is on sale. In the long run, it will be cheaper and healthier.

First posted: February 13, 2013