Banning sweets, chocolate and crisps at supermarket checkouts appears to stop unhealthy impulse buying by shoppers, a large UK study suggests.
Researchers used data from 30,000 households to look at the year before and after bans were introduced by six out of nine major supermarkets.
Purchases fell immediately after the bans and the reduction continued while the policies were in place.
Ministers will soon consult on making it a mandatory ban in England.
The nine supermarkets included in the study, which is published in PLOS Medicine, were Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.
Shoppers at the ones that removed sweets and crisps from checkouts bought almost a fifth less of the unhealthy products.
Data from another 7,500 shoppers who recorded any food they had purchased at supermarkets to eat “on-the-go” rather than take home, showed an even bigger decrease.
Lead researcher Dr Jean Adams, from the University of Cambridge, says that although the study cannot prove a causal link, it suggests changing where products are displayed does alter consumer habits.
She said: “It’s really heartening that small changes in supermarket layout could make such a difference and have an impact on people’s diets.”
Many snacks picked up at the checkout may be unplanned, impulse buys.
Supermarkets have been accused of using “pester power” to sell food high in fat, salt or sugar by putting crisps, sweets and chocolates at the checkout for young children to see and then want.
Dr Adams said these purchases were not necessarily parents giving in to their children. “Sometimes parents buy them as a reward for their child having behaved well in the supermarket.”
Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said: “You would have to be superhuman to resist some promotions. They appear to offer great value but they’re actually designed to make us spend more on foods we simply don’t need.
“Restricting promotions would help to tackle excess calories and reduce obesity, while saving us money over time.”
The government’s ambition to end the promotion of unhealthy foods and drinks at checkouts is part of its strategy to halve childhood obesity in England in the next 12 years.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “This research supports what parents have been saying all along – check-out deals for sugary and fatty foods mean they end up buying products they don’t need or want. That is why we will soon be consulting on restricting these types of offers.”
How bad is the UK’s obesity problem?
- The UK has one of the highest proportions of overweight and obese children in the EU.
- In England, 22% of children are overweight or obese when they start school at the age of four or five, increasing to 34% during their time at primary school.
- Recent figures show that one in 25 children aged 10 or 11 is severely obese.
- Children are measured in different ways and at different ages across the UK.
- In Wales, 26% of children aged four to five are overweight or obese, and in Scotland 14% of under-16s are at risk of obesity.
- Childhood obesity is a worldwide problem, but it’s estimated to cost the UK economy £27bn a year, and the NHS around £5bn, in treating illnesses related to the issue, such as type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.