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$1.7 Million UB Study Sheds Light on Food Purchase Decisions

Leonard Epstein

Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, created the NIH-funded Grocer-E study, through which participants choose from among 11,000 items in a virtual, online store. 

Published June 13, 2013

“It’s the total picture that is important here. We’re developing an evidence base ... to [inform] public policy decisions.”
Leonard Epstein, PHD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of pediatrics and chief of behavioral medicine

A mock, online grocery store created by Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, and colleagues will provide important evidence on how price and nutrient profiling—using the NuVal nutritional coding system—affect food purchase decisions.

Virtual Shopping Study Informs Public Policy Decisions

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the groundbreaking $1.7 million Grocer-E study is designed to help inform food-related public policy.

Through this randomized, controlled study, an expected 800 participants will shop in a virtual online “store” in the University at Buffalo’s behavioral medicine lab, choosing from among more than 11,000 items.

Price and Purchase Decisions

Led by Epstein, SUNY Distinguished Professor of pediatrics, the UB researchers will assess how nutrient profiling and price affect food purchase behavior.

In their experimental store, they will alter prices depending on a food’s nutritional value.

For example, they may “tax” junk foods while subsidizing healthier foods, making them much cheaper.

Does Nutrition Influence Choice?

Researchers also will determine whether better nutrition information at the point of purchase encourages shoppers to change food purchasing behaviors.

In addition, they will evaluate the use of nutrition information provided by the NuVal nutrition profiling system.

This system uses an algorithm to assign each food a nutrition score. Scores are based on positive (fiber, vitamins, minerals) and negative (trans fats, salt, sugar) aspects of the foods.

Epstein, who also is chief of behavioral medicine, was involved in developing NuVal.

Consider Big Picture, Quality of Substitutions

“There’s so much talk about taxing sodas and junk food in order to get people to buy healthy food,” says Epstein, but “in these debates, nobody accounts for the fact that there will be substitutions.”

“People think, ‘Just tax soda and obesity will go away!’”

Yet, the soda drinker may substitute a fruit, energy or coffee drink that is likely very similar to soda in terms of sugar and calories.

“It’s the total picture that is important here,” Epstein emphasizes. “We’re developing an evidence base so that politicians can use the data to set public policy.”

Families With Children Can Participate

Participants must be 19 or older and have at least one child age 2 to 18 at home.

As an incentive, they have a one-in-10 chance of winning the groceries they select.

The study will continue until 2015.