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Buying in bulk may save a buck, but new research has found it could have a negative impact on your health.
A new study published in American Journal of Preventative Medicine analyzed data collected from more than 670,000 U.S. households between 2000 and 2012 and discovered that people are increasingly buying packaged food at warehouse clubs (such as Costco and Sam’s) mass merchandisers (Walmart, Super-Target) and convenience stores (Seven Eleven, CVS, Dollar General) vs. grocery stores (Kroger, Safeway). The study only looked at packaged food purchases; However, researchers detected a “significant increase” in sales of those products between 2000 and 2012.
While that’s not bad on its own, per se, researchers discovered that the goods we’re buying have poor nutritional profiles — specifically in the form of more calories, sugar, sodium, and saturated fat than those sold at grocery stores.
“What surprised us was all stores essentially have the same major selling foods,” study co-author Barry Popkin, PhD, a professor of global nutrition at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells Yahoo Health.
So why is this happening?
Lead study author Dalia Stern, PhD, tells Yahoo Health that it could be that warehouse clubs, mass merchandisers, and convenience stores simply sell more unhealthy products, increasing the odds that we’ll buy them — or it could be that we’re just making poorer food choices when we visit those stores.
The study’s findings certainly back up her latter theory. Among the most popular products purchased at warehouse stores: savory snacks, grain-based desserts (cookies, cakes, sweet breads, etc.), and fruit juices and drinks.
Bulk foods sold at warehouse clubs and mass merchandisers can be particularly tricky, Samuel Accardi, performance dietitian for AFC Fitness and health solution management company The Charge Group, tells Yahoo Health, because they often contain ingredients that aren’t great for our health. Those include high levels of sodium, to give the products a very long shelf life, and high fructose corn syrup.
Diets high in sodium have been linked with heart disease and high blood pressure, while a Princeton study published in the journal Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior found that high fructose corn syrup caused increased body fat, body weight, and other characteristics of obesity in rats.
While registered dietitian-nutritionist Karen Ansel, co-author of The Calendar Diet: A Month by Month Guide to Losing Weight While Living Your Life, tells Yahoo Health that warehouse clubs and mass merchandisers are increasingly offering healthier food choices, she also points out that there are still plenty of less healthy options.
Ansel recommends using trips to those stores as a chance to stock up on produce, like a big bag of apples or grapes, whole grain cereals, breads, eggs, and low-fat milk and yogurt. “It’s just a matter of making your mind up not to reach for the less healthy picks,” she says.
If you’re not sure if a food is healthy, she recommends looking at the nutrition facts panel and specifically focusing on calories per serving, sodium, and saturated fat.
Looking at sugar content is important, too, she says, but points out that manufacturers aren’t required to separate natural and added sugars. Because of this, she suggests looking out for added sugars on the ingredients list like sugar, honey, cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, and molasses.
Buying food at a convenience store? Reach for Greek yogurt, fruit, or beef jerky, Accardi says. You may even be able to find hard boiled eggs, nuts, seeds, or single-servings of cheese — all of which are good options, says Ansel.
Experts say that it’s possible to make healthy food choices in nearly any type of food store, you just have to be smart about it. Adds Stern: “People should be worried about the choices they make when purchasing foods and beverages, regardless of the type of store where they shop for food.”