BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The courts may have weighed in (no pun
intended) on New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on
supersized soft drinks, but science has not. That’s why
University at Buffalo Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics Leonard
H. Epstein, PhD, has established a large-scale, Internet-based
experimental grocery store to develop evidence-based science about
how people decide what to buy.
“My ultimate goal is to advocate the use of the scientific
method to set public policy,” he says.
Epstein is currently recruiting 800 grocery shoppers for a $1.7
million, randomized, controlled study funded by the National
Institutes of Health, which runs until 2015.
To participate, shoppers must be 19 years of age or older and
have at least one child at home between the ages of 2 and 18.
Individuals interested in participating in the Grocer-E study
should call 716-829-6694 or 716-829-6122 or go to https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/Grocer-EStudy.
Participants “shop” in UB’s behavioral
medicine lab, using an online grocery store that was developed by
Epstein and colleagues at UB, featuring more than 11,000 items. In
the experimental grocery store, prices are altered depending on a
food’s nutritional value. For example, junk foods may be
taxed while healthier foods may be subsidized and therefore much
Participants have a one in 10 chance to win the groceries they
The goals of the study are to assess how shoppers’
purchasing decisions respond to changes in price and to assess
whether or not better nutrition information at the point of
purchase will encourage shoppers to change food purchasing
“Nobody has looked at this in an experimental way,”
says Epstein, chief of the Division of Behavioral Medicine in the
Department of Pediatrics in the UB School of Medicine and
Biomedical Sciences and a faculty member in the Department of
Social and Preventive Medicine in the UB School of Public Health
and Health Professions.
“There’s so much talk about taxing sodas and junk
food in order to get people to buy healthy food,” says
Epstein. “People think, ‘Just tax soda and obesity will
go away!’ What if soda costs 50 cents more? The person who
would ordinarily buy soda may just substitute a fruit drink, an
energy drink or a coffee drink, which is likely very similar to
soda in terms of sugar and calories. In these debates, nobody
accounts for the fact that there will be substitutions.
The use of nutrition information, provided by the NuVal
nutrition profiling system, also will be evaluated in the study.
Epstein was involved in the development of NuVal, which uses an
algorithm based on positive (fiber, vitamins, minerals) and
negative (trans fats, salt, sugar) aspects of food to assign to
each food a nutrition score.
“It’s the total picture that is important
here,” says Epstein. “We’re developing an
evidence base for public policy decisions so that politicians can
use the data to set public policy.”