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When does a healthy choice lead to an unhealthy one?

Date:05 February 2019
Author:Celia Castañón Lagunes
Julia Storch is a researcher at the Department of Marketing at the University of Groningen. Her current work focuses on factors that dynamically affect the healthiness of consecutive food choices during major grocery shopping trips.
Julia Storch is a researcher at the Department of Marketing at the University of Groningen. Her current work focuses on factors that dynamically affect the healthiness of consecutive food choices during major grocery shopping trips.

Researcher Julia Storch is on a mission to understand the decision making that governs what ends up in our shopping baskets. It's all part of trying to solve a challenge on a world scale. "We have a global obesity epidemic. Some people even talk about a pandemic because it's really a global problem," Storch told FEB Research over a cup of coffee in the Duisenberg Building.

"While there are many many reasons for obesity and why it's an issue, one of the most prevalent issues is that we consume too many calories. We eat more calories than we can actually burn."

That's where the supermarkets come in. If trying to affect the number of calories people consume, the supermarket shop is a strategic intervention point. That weekly shopping trip accounts for a major proportion of the food we end up eating.

"If you can limit the amount of calories people acquire in a supermarket, then perhaps you can limit the calories that an entire family consumes," Storch explained.

Individual choices

The next step is to try to understand consumer decision making in a supermarket context. Plenty of research exists on individual choices -- "why we choose the granola bar over the cookie", in Storch’s words -- but the supermarket shop is actually a complex sequence of choices that interrelate and may affect each other. Once we have opted for salad instead of tortilla chips for example, we might toss a chocolate bar into the cart later on as we feel we are being virtuous.

Storch's research will study these choices and analyse how they are interlinked: "when does a healthy choice lead to an unhealthy choice, and vice versa".

There are a number of ways to study this question. Research could be done by real-time observation in supermarkets, data from an online supermarket, or even MRI neuroimaging assessing the brain’s response to different situations. Each approach has strengths and limitations, but the one Storch believes is most suited to her topic is recreating the shopping experience in a laboratory and conducting experiments in that setting.

Her ultimate goal is ambitious.

"Once we understand how people shop and why they shop that way, we are also in a better position to intervene while they shop and design health interventions," Storch said. The question of designing interventions is a topic for a later stage. But one idea Storch already has is a system that would give feedback in real time, to allow us to understand the implications of our shopping choices as we add items to our baskets. Perhaps it would dissuade us from adding that final chocolate bar.

Inspiration

Originally from Mannheim in Germany, Storch is a graduate of the Research Master in Economics and Business. She was awarded SOM's Best Research Master Graduate for her thesis Mixed feelings, mixed baskets: How shopping emotions drive the relative healthiness of sequential food choices.

This strong academic background combined with an excellent research proposal won her – together with her supervisor Koert van Ittersum - a NWO Research Talent grant in 2018, meaning her doctoral study is fully funded for four years.

The inspiration to study consumer choices came to her after completing an internship with Nestlé.

"There's both the interest for retail, and also the interest to help consumers," Storch explained. "Retailers are satisfying a need that consumers have, but on the other hand perhaps they try to tempt people to buy something that is not so good for them."