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Grocery shopper

UB recruiting shoppers for study on how food prices affect what we buy

By ELLEN GOLDBAUM

Published May 3, 2013

“My ultimate goal is to advocate the use of the scientific method to set public policy.”
Leonard H. Epstein, UB Distinguished Professor
Department of Pediatrics

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 Leonard H. Epstein, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pediatrics, 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 currently is 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 829-6694 or 829-6122, or complete the online eligibility questionnaire

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 cheaper.

Participants have a one in 10 chance to win the groceries they selected.

The goals of the study are to assess how shoppers’ purchasing decisions respond to changes in price and to assess whether better nutrition information at the point of purchase will encourage shoppers to change food-purchasing behaviors.

“Nobody has looked at this in an experimental way,” says Epstein, chief of the Division of Behavioral Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and a faculty member in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, 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.”