Every grocery shopper must pass through the “temptation alley” that is the checkout aisle, surrounded by candy bars, salty snacks and sugary sodas.

Those who’d like a healthy option for an impulse buy while they wait in line — fruit, veggies, nuts or water — will be left wanting, a new study says.

About 70% of foods and beverages offered at checkout stands are unhealthy, according to a new study in Current Developments in Nutrition.

Further, 9 out of 10 (89%) snack-sized options in the checkout aisle are junk food, researchers found.

The presence of so much junk food in the checkout lane is calculated, said lead researcher Jennifer Falbe, an associate professor of nutrition and human development at the University of California, Davis.

“Many of us go shopping thinking that we make choices in a neutral environment, but our findings indicate that is not the case,” Falbe said. “Certain products are preferentially promoted over others — in this case, unhealthy products at the checkout — and this can affect consumer decisions.”

Prior research has shown that items offered there aren’t necessarily in high demand by consumers or represent a high profit margin for the supermarket, Falbe said.

“What you see at checkout is often there because a big food or beverage company paid the store to place their products there,” Falbe said. “The checkout is like beachfront property. Not only is it the only place in a store that every customer must pass through, many checkout shelves are at children’s eye level, potentially contributing to child requests for checkout products.”

For this study, Falbe and her colleagues analyzed the checkout lanes at 102 food stores in the California cities of Davis, Sacramento, Oakland and Berkeley. The stores included supermarkets, grocery stores, specialty food stores, drugstores and dollar stores.

The evaluation took place in February 2021, right before Berkeley enacted the first ordinance in the United States requiring large food stores to offer more nutritious products at the checkout.

Berkeley’s local law closely hews to federal dietary guidelines, setting limits on the amount of added sugars and sodium in products that can be placed in the checkout aisle, researchers noted.

The research team used Berkeley’s policy as a benchmark to measure the healthfulness of products at store checkouts.

The most frequent product categories found at checkout aisles were candy (31%), gum (18%), sugar-sweetened beverages (11%), salty snacks (9%), mints (7%) and sweets (6%).

Healthier items were far less frequent, including diet beverages (5%), water (3%), nuts and seeds (2%), and fruits and vegetables (1%).

Expensive real estate

It’s no coincidence that this is what greets customers at checkout, said Sara John, a senior policy scientist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“We know that checkout marketing works because it’s really some of the most expensive real estate in the store,” said John, who was not part of the research team. “Slotting fees in the checkout lane can be millions of dollars for individual products for manufacturers to be able to place their items.”

“As both a scientist and a mother, I know how powerful it can be when you’re walking through that aisle and waiting in line to check out and your child is asking to grab a candy bar or grab a soda that’s right at their eye level,” John added.

In fact, some supermarkets rely on those fees from manufacturers to stay in business, said Eric Rimm, a professor of epidemiology with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“The margins at supermarkets are low, and many supermarkets make more money selling spots in the store than they do selling food in the whole store,” said Rimm, who wasn’t involved with the study.

Junk food manufacturers get those spots because they have more money to wave around, he added.

”Those spots are usually sold with one, two or three-year contracts,” Rimm said. “Candy and gum manufacturers make so much money on the products they put out there — it costs so little to make a chocolate bar versus how much they’re selling it for — that they actually likely have the extra dollars to compete with any other food manufacturer that would like to put their item in the checkout aisle.”

It can cost a manufacturer $1 million a year to place a single product at checkout in a supermarket chain, Falbe said, and smaller producers of healthy products might not be able to afford those sort of fees.

“However, many of the companies whose products dominate checkout also produce healthier items,” Falbe added. “For example, big soda companies also produce sparkling water and unsweetened tea, and candy and salty snack companies also make nut bars and whole-grain crackers. These companies should be promoting their healthier lines at checkout.”

Keeping fresh options like produce at the checkout stand also poses a costly hassle for grocery stores, Rimm added.

“Why don’t they just put apples, bananas and blueberries there? The answer to that is, it’s too expensive for the store, for the labor of putting fruit there all the time,” Rimm said. “They have to check on it all the time. It doesn’t last as long. A candy bar could sit there for days, weeks or maybe even months. You don’t have to turn over the products.”

Are laws needed?

Because of these hurdles, researchers say the only way to really change the checkout aisle will be through local ordinances like Berkeley’s, if not state or federal laws requiring healthier options.

Individual big-box stores have experimented with offering healthy checkout aisles, and it does seem to work, Rimm said.

“Obviously, you buy less candy if you’re not staring at it,” Rimm said. “But I think the economics were such that it was going to be hard to convince every store to do that. Until you pass a law, I think it’s unlikely the stores will economically be able to do that.”

John agreed.

“I think policy is really the solution because of the power of the industry,” John said. “There’s a really compelling argument for mandating that consumers deserve to have healthy options in the one place where all customers have to pass through in the store.”

However, the experts added that further research is required in Berkeley and other places that adopt such ordinances to see if that approach actually works.

“Hopefully, researchers will evaluate how well retailers implement this policy and whether it actually changes consumer purchasing behavior when there are healthier options available to them at checkout,” John said.

Rimm said personal responsibility also plays a role in the checkout lane.

“Supermarkets are businesses and they’re here to make money, and if the shopper didn’t buy that stuff, I guarantee it won’t be there,” Rimm said. “In some ways, it is our fault as well. We can go in with a list of 20 items, but rarely do we leave the store with 20 items because we’re tempted or we think of something else or whatever.”

“Yes, you could say I want the supermarket to put other things there,” Rimm added. “But I also wish that people wouldn’t feel the urge or the obligation to pick something up and buy it.”

More information

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has more about healthy checkout ordinances.

SOURCES: Jennifer Falbe, PhD, associate professor, nutrition, and human development, University of California, Davis; Sara John, PhD, senior policy scientist, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, D.C.; Eric Rimm, ScD, professor, epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston; Current Developments in Nutrition, June 2023, online