Canadian researchers are suggesting methods for health agencies to monitor grocery store purchases in order to pinpoint neighborhoods that they think might need to be targeted with messages about healthy eating.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

“We’ve taken data which most grocery and convenience stores generate with digital scanners to identify items at checkout. Companies use these data and produce information for marketing and other purposes,” said David Buckeridge, a public health physician and associate professor at McGill University. “We developed a way to use these data towards a positive public health initiative: routine monitoring of eating habits over time in particular pockets of a city to reveal which populations consume foods that can contribute to negative health outcomes.”

Buckeridge and his team measured soft drink purchases on a neighborhood scale in Montreal, Canada. This information was then compared to census data that provided insight into a neighborhood’s socioeconomic conditions.

Map shows neighborhood eating habits in Montreal, based on a study's analysis of soda purchases. (Image source: David Buckeridge via EurekAlert)

Map shows neighborhood eating habits in Montreal, based on a study’s analysis of soda purchases. (Image source: David Buckeridge via EurekAlert)

“For each $10,000 decrease in median personal income, we observed a fivefold increase in estimated monthly sales of soft drinks,” Buckeridge said. “This indicates that in neighborhoods where families have lower incomes people tend to buy many more soft drinks as compared to neighborhoods where families have higher incomes.”

Though Buckeridge used soda purchases in his study, he said the same analysis could measure other food choices, including processed foods or those heavy in sodium or saturated fat. Depending on the terms of a grocery store’s discount cards, which have become popular to allow customers to get advertised deals, this data could conceivably be used in the same way as well.

He also said digital data could be used to track what customers are buying at restaurants in different neighborhoods as well.

“We are working with public health agencies to determine how the methods we have developed can be used to monitor the food consumed within a neighborhood and develop strategies to encourage healthier diets,” Buckeridge said. “The evidence is clear that promoting healthy eating habits can prevent or reduce health problems, improve quality of life and reduce health care costs. We are aware that biological, geographical, environmental and economic factors as well as social influence impact what people eat. Monitoring and analysis of these factors is critical to inform efforts aimed at promoting healthy eating and preventing chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.”

While this study suggests monitoring in order to encourage healthier eating, more heavy-handed movement on the part of the government against items it deems unhealthy — such as soda bans – has been met with backlash by people advocating for their right to choose what to buy and consume.

Buckeridge’s research was published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.