With all the commitments that crowd your busy schedule, a grocery run can be the hardest time-consuming line item to squeeze into an already lengthy to-do list — so thank goodness for online grocery shopping, right? In the last several years, this modern convenience has become a boon to busy shoppers, with retailers from Amazon to Walmart offering it in various forms. Consumers surveyed now report that they purchase groceries online just over a third of the time. After all, who wouldn’t want food delivered to their door with the click of a button? Despite the many advantages of online grocery shopping, however, new research reveals that it may exact a steeper price than we realize — not from our wallets, but from our health.
A survey recently conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) took an in-depth look at exactly what items people shop for online, and their behaviors when they do so. The results raise some concerns about how purchasing patterns change when performed on a screen and not in person. When we shop for food online, a variety of factors may subtly influence us to make less-than-optimal health choices.
These differences stem from more than the obvious contrast between lounging at home in your pajamas versus traveling to a store and physically pushing a cart. (There’s a reason “the shopping cart” is an actual dance move… just saying.) Beyond burning extra calories, people who purchase groceries in a store are significantly more likely to read nutrition facts and ingredient labels: While two-thirds of consumers surveyed said they read nutrition information before making grocery purchases in-store, only about half reported doing so online. Since awareness plays a major role in our health, these numbers are troubling.
Why the inattention to labels when shopping online? “This could be for a few reasons,” says Alex Lewin-Zwerdling, PhD, Vice President of Research and Partnerships at the IFIC. “Sometimes the nutrition labels aren’t as readily available, consumers might be purchasing foods they already know and are familiar with, or perhaps other types of labels — like front-of-pack statements — become more visible and possibly of greater significance when shopping online.” Whatever the reasons, one thing is clear: When you don’t know what’s in your food, you can’t make informed choices for your nutrition.
The IFIC study also revealed that snacks top the list of grocery items most frequently purchased online. (And we’re not talking apples and carrot sticks.) While 37 percent of consumers reported buying snacks online, only a bit over a third as many (14 percent of respondents) said they bought fresh produce over the internet. Since fresh foods’ sensory appeal of color and smell doesn’t transmit through a photo on a phone, it may be that those foods don’t grab shoppers’ attention online, preventing produce from being added to our digital baskets. Still, as Lewin-Zwerdling explains, it’s also possible that many of us save our fresh produce purchases for real-world grocery runs: “We frequently hear that consumers want to feel or touch the food they’re buying, so it’s likely that leads to more packaged foods being purchased online, and perishables more frequently being purchased in-person.”
If online grocery shopping suits your lifestyle, there’s no need to discontinue the practice. Rather, let these survey results remind you to shop smarter for healthier choices. Though you may miss the tactile experience of choosing your own fresh options like produce, dairy, and meats, some sites allow you to make notes about your preferences on these selections. Give details to ensure you get the bright yellow bananas or right-sized salmon portions you would choose for yourself. And for healthy choices you don’t even have to think about, arrange your online settings with a “buy again” option for good-for-you items you know you want stocked.
Finally, don’t forget to give nutrition info due diligence when shopping online. Label reading empowers you with information on calories, serving sizes, and nutrients that can make a big difference to your health. In fact, while weight doesn’t necessarily equal health or fitness, women who read nutrition labels weigh an average of eight pounds less than those who don’t. “Sometimes it might take an extra click, but the nutrition information should be available,” encourages Lewin-Zwerdling. And when you don’t even have to put pants on, an extra click should be no problem.
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(Photos via Getty)