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Americans are less likely to buy fruits and vegetables when they shop for groceries online

Americans are less likely to make healthy choices when shopping for groceries online, in large part because they don’t trust the courier picking up the produce for them to choose the freshest fruit and vegetable options, according to a new study.

Researchers at New York University collected data from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients and found that they were more likely to purchase processed non-perishable goods rather than fresh produce when using online shopping programs.

They were also less likely to buy sweets like candy, probably because the products didn’t appeal to them like they would in a physical store where they are placed in areas that entice the consumer to make a purchase.

Online grocery shopping programs are growing in the United States, both for SNAP recipients and consumers in general, with popular apps like Uber Eats and Doordash even adding them to their offerings in recent years to capture market share.

Study finds people who shop for groceries through a series of deliveries are less likely to order fruits and vegetables because they don't make healthy choices at the grocery store (file photo)

Study finds people who shop for groceries through a series of deliveries are less likely to order fruits and vegetables because they don’t make healthy choices at the grocery store (file photo)

In 2019, SNAP benefits could be used on some online grocery delivery platforms. Usage was further extended in 2020 to allow recipients to safely social distance during the pandemic.

“The expansion of the SNAP online policy during the pandemic was important in providing equal opportunity for low-income populations to access groceries,” assistant professor Angela Trude, lead author of the study, said in a statement.

The research team, which published its findings last month in Appetite, first surveyed 310 families about the government benefits program in Maryland.

They found that 57 percent of shoppers had used an online shopping service in the past, and for the most part they felt positive about their experiences.

When families reported grocery store choices, the researchers found they were 70 percent less likely to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood when shopping online compared to when shopping in person.

In interviews, shoppers reported that they feared that the courier choosing which fruit or which package of meat to buy would not make the right decision.

Participants were also 49 percent less likely to buy sweets like candy, cookies, and cake.

They reported that it was easier to resist temptations virtually and that there were no children present to pressure them into making the wrong decisions.

Grocery stores, among many others, are also set up in ways that encourage people to make poor dietary choices, with some experts noting that having candy next to the cash register, a staple food in the US, retailers are taking advantage ‘decision fatigue’.

After a person has just spent an entire shopping trip choosing what to buy, which brand to choose, and comparing prices, they may feel mentally overwhelmed enough to make a poor decision right at the end of their trip.

This phenomenon doesn’t exist when shopping virtually for the most part, because paying doesn’t require someone to walk past an unhealthy food counter.

Researchers say consumers need to be educated in ways that help them make better decisions at the grocery store.

Researchers say consumers need to be educated in ways that help them make better decisions at the grocery store.

However, some delivery platforms are capitalizing on decision fatigue by having a pop-up menu that shows the customer sweet and savory options right before they go to the cart and pay.

“Online grocery shopping is a promising tool for reducing food access problems, but our study shows this could lead to reduced purchases of healthy foods, in part due to uncertainty and mistrust in the how these products are selected,” Trude said.

Teaching Americans how to make healthier choices at the grocery store could solve the nation’s ongoing obesity crisis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that more than 40 percent of Americans are obese and 70 percent are overweight.

Another study earlier this year by Attest found that only 9 percent of Americans can make the optimal choices at the grocery store.

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