If you think grocery chains are really advancing the cause of healthy eating by promoting local products, you might want to think again. That’s not always the case.
Since the start of the pandemic, the “buy local” concept has become more and more popular across the country, especially when it comes to food. Quebec supermarkets are giving local products more and more prominent positions in their weekly flyers. You can spot local foods by looking for the Aliments du Québec logo or an in-house logo like Super Québec (used by the Super C grocery chain) or Produits d’ici (in Metro stores). That’s a good thing, right? Well, not always, according to a study called Portrait de la promotion des aliments québécois dans les circulaires des épiceries (in French only) (Promotion of Quebec-grown Foods in Grocery Flyers) conducted by the Coalition québécoise sur la problématique du poids (The Weight Coalition), a Quebec-based organization that’s dedicated to promoting healthy lifestyles.
What’s the problem? Well, not all products that sport these logos are good for our health – far from it, actually. “As soon as the government started to encourage the public to buy local, we began to see new marketing strategies emerge in the food industry,” says Corinne Voyer, director of The Weight Coalition. “Before the pandemic we seldom saw these logos in grocery flyers, but now they’re all over the place. And they’re often used to promote products that contain a lot of sugar, salt or fat, in many cases products developed by large corporations, even multinationals.”
Flyers are extremely useful promotional tools for supermarkets. According to a Nielsen survey conducted in May 2020, 80% of Quebecers check out the flyers before they do their groceries, and Voyer says that figure may even have risen with the pandemic.
A lot of people have lost their jobs or are having money problems. They are definitely looking for the least expensive groceries they can find.”
Corinne Voyer, director of The Weight Coalition
Voyer is concerned about another survey, conducted by Léger in October 2020 on behalf of the Association pour la santé publique du Québec , which found that more than three-quarters of Quebecers believe consuming local foods is beneficial for their health. “People need to know that’s not true,” says Voyer. “Our study is a wake-up call for both the public and for politicians.”
Voyer points out that dubious associations like this are not unusual. “It’s called the health halo effect,” she says. “To add more (perceived) value to products that should only be consumed occasionally, some of their attributes are highlighted. For example, we see claims on cereal bars and breakfast cereals like ‘high in iron,’ even though the first ingredient is sugar…”
The health halo – now more than ever, during the pandemic – can have the effect of boosting the consumption of foods that should actually be avoided. The Weight Coalition study reveals that in the first two weeks after the health crisis was declared, one in four Quebecers were already reporting “a reduction in the overall quality of their diet, and one in three said they were eating more junk food (sugary drinks, candy, chips and fried food).”
Voyer says the federal government should oversee ultra-processed foods more closely, and make front-of-package nutrition labels mandatory in the very near future. “We believe this is the most promising initiative.” This type of food labeling shows the fat, sugar and salt content of each food quickly at a glance, which could influence consumers’ choices.
Voyer deplores the fact that this labeling, designed a few years ago, has yet to be put in place. “The government could have made things happen more quickly with the pandemic. The new labeling would have helped people do their shopping more quickly without touching the products. But the food industry applied a lot of pressure to make sure that didn’t happen.” The expert says that streamlined visible labeling will also encourage companies to improve their products – after all, what company wants to get bad reviews on their packaging?
There are other solutions as well. For example, the government could oversee the promotion of ultra-processed foods more closely, as is already done in the U.K., where these products cannot be displayed at the end of the aisle or near the cash, and cannot be sold as a “two-for-one.” The government could also ban some misleading claims or logos.
The expert also believes that subsidies should be reviewed based on the quality of the foods in question.
Some companies manage to get funding to launch a new energy drink. Perhaps we could let them do that on their own… or give them a little less money than companies that prepare precut vegetables… That’s the kind of food we want to see on Quebecers’ plates, food that deserves to be subsidized…”
Voyer believes it’s urgent to take action on this crucial health issue. “We’re not telling the government that these foods should never be promoted,” she says. “But currently these foods, which should be eaten only occasionally, are taking up all the space.” And that can have serious effects. “Today, half of all Quebecers suffer from at least one chronic illness. And poor eating plays a big role in that. If we don’t attack the problem at the source and make healthy good-quality food available, taxpayers will continue to pay for the system that’s making them sick.”
Portrait de la promotion des aliments québécois dans les circulaires des épiceries (in French only) (Promotion of Quebec-grown Foods in Grocery Flyers, The Weight Coalition, 2021) studied about 1,000 foods shown in flyers for the major grocery chains operating stores in Quebec in the fall of 2020. All the foods were identified with a “Quebec product” logo (from a certification body or a grocery chain). A nutritional analysis was also performed on some of these products.