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Online groceries make healthier eating just a click away

By: Helen Wong, Dalhousie University

By now, many Canadians have tried online shopping for their groceries. While online grocery retail had a slow start before 2020, Canadian food and beverage stores saw an increase of 107% in e-commerce sales from February to April 2020. It seems COVID motivated Canadians to give online shopping a try for their food. When asked, close to 25% of people said the pandemic was the reason they brought groceries online in August 2020.

Online grocery shopping has changed how we get our food. Each store is a bit different, but the general way online grocery shopping works is similar for most. The grocery website lets us shop at all hours. We can start a grocery list, save it, and keep adding to it until we are ready for checkout. Old shopping lists are also kept on our accounts, making it easy for us to reorder our favourite items. Now, we can get our groceries done while sitting at home, without the stress of dealing with busy stores or long line-ups.

Shopping online for groceries is convenient, but can it also help us make healthier food choices? A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior by a group of researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health compared how people shop online and in-store for their groceries. Researchers looked at food purchase data (5,573 transactions) from two supermarkets in Maine. The data came from 137 household shoppers who had shopped both online and in-store. On average, shoppers spent 44% more money ($113.58 vs $78.88) and brought more things (38.3 items vs 26.6 items) per transaction when shopping online than in-store. Yet, shoppers tended to spend less money per online transaction for certain unhealthy foods like candies and desserts. This study suggests that people act differently when they shop for their groceries online compared to in-store. The online grocery setting might be a good place to promote healthy eating.

Research on online grocery shopping and healthier purchases

The link between online grocery shopping and buying healthy foods isn’t so clear-cut. A researcher from East Carolina University led a review to look at the pros and cons of online grocery shopping on food purchases. The final review paper included 24 studies and was published in Public Health Nutrition in 2018. Online grocery shopping has the promise of fueling healthy purchases by lessening impulse buys and encouraging shoppers to plan ahead using the grocery list function. Online shoppers also tended to use pictures of the products when deciding what to buy rather than reading product information. This highlights a chance for future marketing on healthy eating to focus on the front of food packages for things like advertising nutrition claims.

However, there are also downsides to online grocery shopping that can boost unhealthy purchases. For instance, people shopping online for groceries tended to be more brand loyal but less influenced by price. This means raising the costs of unhealthy foods probably won’t stop us from buying them. Online shoppers can also stock up on impulse items that are unhealthy and they are less likely to get perishable foods like fruits and vegetables. All in all, it seems that online shopping has the potential to push both healthy and unhealthy choices.

Healthy grocery shopping

At the moment, it is just too soon to say if online grocery shopping can lead to healthier food choices and improvements in our diet. While online shopping offers features that make it easier for some to avoid unnecessary impulse purchases, it may also open the door to product promotions that may be misleading, and shoppers should beware of. We still need more data and time to help us understand how online shopping might influence our food purchases.

On a positive note, we can always decide what we eat. If you are interested in healthy eating, here are some tips to help you make healthier food purchases, whether you are shopping online or in-store:

1. Plan ahead so you don’t buy what you don’t need.

2. Use food labels to help you pick healthier options.

3. Don’t forget to get vegetables and fruits. If shopping online, hardy fruits like apples, oranges, bananas, and pineapples can handle the delivery process without getting ruined.

Edited by participants of the 2021 Science Writing Internship program and B.G. Borowiec. Header photo from Unsplash.

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