Hiding fruit in-between chocolate bars could tempt shoppers into making healthier purchases, researchers believe.
Scientists have yet to test the concept of completely changing how aisles are laid out – but said it could have a ‘profound impact’.
People are drawn to healthy food when it surrounded by treats because it ‘stands out’, say experts at Duke University, North Carolina.
Shoppers were twice as likely to buy healthy foods when they are placed with a biscuit or chocolate bar, a study has found.
With obesity rates climbing across the planet because of poor diets, the unusual method could help people make better choices.
Professor Scott Huettel, study co-author, said: ‘When people choose foods, they don’t simply reach into their memory and pick the most-preferred food.
‘Instead, how much we prefer something actually depends on what other options are available.’
The researchers tested the idea with 79 young adults from the Durham-Chapel Hill area, who they asked to fast for four hours beforehand.
They arrived hungry, and were asked to pick between an indulgent or healthy, but less tasty, product.
When given a simple one-to-one choice between tinned salmon and Oreo biscuits, for instance, nearly all the volunteers preferred the latter.
But when they saw salmon paired with Oreos, or Oreos paired with Snickers, they were twice as likely to reach for the former.
One possible explanation involves attention. The healthy item – salmon – was the different item among the choices, so it stood out visually.
Eye movement tracking found subjects spent more time looking at salmon and other healthy foods when they were surrounded by indulgent treats.
‘If you see one healthy food and one unhealthy food, most people will choose the indulgent food,’ Professor Huettel said. ‘But if you add more unhealthy foods, it seems, suddenly the healthy food stands out.’
Mixing sugary and fatty foods with healthy ones could help people make better choices, the authors said in the journal Psychological Science.
Dr Nicolette Sullivan, study co-author said: ‘When people see a wall of cabbage and broccoli, that may not encourage people to choose it.
‘Right now, food items are very segregated: here’s the produce, here are the candy bars. Yet maybe if we put something healthy in the middle of the snack food section, perhaps that might encourage people to choose it.’
Obesity rates are climbing across the world – with Britons leading the way.
Britons are the fattest in Western Europe, with almost two in three adults overweight and more than a quarter obese.
Two of every five adults struggle with obesity in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Simply adding healthy choices, such as by adding a small produce section to a corner store, typically hasn’t worked, Dr Sullivan said.
She described ‘food deserts’ where junk food and fast food abound while fresh produce and healthy protein sources are scarce – typically in the US.
‘Individuals struggle with making healthy choices,’ Dr Sullivan said. ‘If we can change the set of foods people are choosing between, people may make healthier choices. And that could have a profound impact.’