Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Lack of healthy grocery choices may be more about demand than supply; healthiness of purchases mapped by county

Common wisdom has held that people buy less healthful foods because they can't afford them or can't find them in nearby groceries, but new research has found that some may simply be less interested in buying healthy foods than others. "According to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, those groups include consumers who make less money, have less education, possess lower levels of nutrition knowledge and live in certain geographic areas," Caitlin Dewey reports for The Washington Post.

The four unhealthiest counties were Menominee County, Wisconsin; Turner County, Georgia; McNairy County, Tennessee; and Musselshell County, Montana. All four are rural. The three healthiest three counties were New York County, N.Y. (Manhattan); Pitkin County, Colorado (Aspen); and Iroquois County in east-central Illinois (Watseka, pop. 5,000).Pitkin County has one of the highest median incomes and highest life expectancies in the country.

Washington Post map; click on it for a larger version.
It's already known that high-income families tend to buy healthier foods than the poor, but that can't be explained entirely by cost or availability of healthy food. The paper, which hasn't completed peer review, analyzed 12 years of Nielsen grocery-purchase data from 100,000 households across the U.S. The researchers studied what happened to a household's food purchases when a new grocery opened nearby, or when the household otherwise was no longer in a "food desert" without easy access to fresh produce.

They found that such changes had a limited impact on the foods those households bought, so it may have been more about demand than access. However, the researchers stress that there were factors the study didn't consider, including the time to plan and cook meals, exposure to food marketing, and stress levels. Lead researcher Hunt Allcott, an economist at New York University, "hypothesizes that a region’s dominant cuisine, be that barbecue or avocado toast, informs the meals that people eat as children. That, in turn, has a large effect on their lifelong food preferences," Dewey reports.

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