Supermarket Foods Contribute to Rise in Lifestyle Diseases

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are on the rise in middle and low income countries including Kenya. More commonly referred to as lifestyle diseases, a common sight are overweight and obesity cases which are being exacerbated not only by our increasingly sedentary lifestyles but also poor feeding habits and food choices.

Urbanization has brought with it many good things, one of them being the convenience afforded by shopping at supermarkets rather than moving from kiosk to kiosk. Large retail chains are continually expanding their network and can now be found in the hearts of our estates in urban areas to towns in the countryside.

It’s believed that this shift to retail shopping is among the causes behind the rise in obesity and overweight cases.


Why Do We Buy Foods From Supermarkets?

supermarket aisle
Supermarket Aisle

The answer to this is mostly convenience. Supermarkets are growing larger by the day in a bid to house all manner of goods in one place. This way consumers don’t have to shop for different items, including different kinds of food, at different locations.

As a result, supermarkets now not only offer a wide selection of packaged foods but also offer fresh foods ranging from fruits and vegetables to in-house brands of fresh milk and baked food stuffs. Some retail chains even have cooked meals and snacks on sale, thus in effect turning themselves into “mini-malls”.

Examples of local large retail supermarkets in the country include Tuskys, Naivas, Nakumatt, Uchumi, Maathai, Eastmatt and Chandarana. In the recent past, there also has been a growing interest from foreing retail chains with the likes of Choppies, Shoprite, Carrefour and Games Stores making an entry into the segment.

This indicates that there's a demand, and thus a shift to shopping for food items in supermarkets as opposed to small stores and informal markets.



Supermarket Foods Linked to Increased Risk of Lifesyle Diseases

Fresh foods are usually the main source of food in rural areas as this is where farming is centred, be it for economic purposes or just subsistence. However due to urbanization, residents of rural towns can now source some of their food from supermarkets.

A study conducted in three towns in central Kenya showed that supermarket purchase contributes to nutrition-related non-communicable diseases.These towns included Njabini and Ol Kalou from Nyandarua county and Mwea town in Kirinyaga county. The reason for selection in these towns was due to the characteristics of supermarkets and prevalence of diabetes found in this region.

Two of these towns, Ol Kalau and Mwea, had supermarkets while Njabini didn’t have any. The aim was to compare the consumption of food among these areas and their effect on human health.

The study established that from the two groups, respondents that were buying their foods from supermarkets had higher BMI compared to those that did not. In addition to these, the prevalence of pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, overweight and obesity was also high among supermarket buyers.



Nutritional Quality of Foods Sold in Supermarkets

The reason for these results are not surprising as the majority of foods that fill the shelves of supermarkets are processed in nature. A wide selection of such foods include those from processed grains such as wheat and maize.

While whole-grains varieties exist for some of these commodities, such as the various bread varieties on offer, most consumers will usually prefer the white variety either due to taste preferences and/or affordability reasons.

There’s also the likelihood that some consumers conflate the fortification of white varieties with superior quality, thus in effect concluding they’re just as healthy (if not more) than the unprocessed whole-grain varieties found in informal markets.

Other processed foods include a majority of snacks and soft drinks that are high in sugars and fats and processed meats that are a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers.

Lastly, the cooked foods & snacks tend to be of the junk variety and therefore only exacerbate the poor food choices people are likely to make when shopping there.

With that said, there are a lot of healthy foods to be found in the halls of most supermarkets. A case in point is that retail chains are increasingly including fresh fruits and vegetables sections in their branches. The prices of these however tend to be higher to those found in informal markets and mama mbogas.

The solution therefore lies in educating the consumer on making healthy choices when shopping for food rather than expecting retail businesses to shift to what may be considered as healthy food products.
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