Is Grocery Shopping Online Good or Bad for Health


One of the things I like about grocery shopping is running into acquaintances and chatting with the cashier. I dread the Silicon Valley world in which Monica realizes that she’s the only person in the supermarket buying things for herself – the rest are professionals fulfilling online orders. But still, the fourth or fifth message from Whole Foods finally got through my barriers. Incentives and insistence made me place an order.

My first inclination was to avoid ordering fresh produce, which I usually decide upon only after seeing what’s good right now, and then I’m not shy about looking through the pile for the best looking, least bruised apples and the perkiest kale. But the whole point was testing the fresh produce, so I did order some greens and fruit.

As promised, my package arrived within the two-hour window, nicely packed. The produce quality was fine.

Just like me, at least on that busy Thursday, many people are trying online grocery shopping. According to a Nielsen survey 50 percent of American shoppers currently order groceries online, and they predict that 70 percent of consumers will be doing it by 2024.

How is this shift going to impact eating habits?

Clicking for groceries: the good and the bad

A new study in Public Health Nutrition gathered all the relevant studies published in the past 10 years to see what research can teach us about the potential of advancing health through online shopping. There were 24 studies that met the inclusion criteria. Here are some of the findings:

The authors find several potential positives:

Fewer impulse purchases: Most supermarkets are designed to maximize impulse purchases, and the items that are placed to tempt us as we walk around and linger around the cashier tend to be the less healthy ones. The studies found that the online shopping environment, at least for now, makes it easier to avoid tempting unhealthy foods, and people report they buy more of what they ‘need’, less of what they ‘want’, and fewer ‘vices’.

Online displays can help with healthy decisions: Six studies that focused on advancing healthier decisions in online selections found that the first screen the shoppers see is the most powerful tool to influence their purchase decisions. People don’t look at nutrition information much – even when they’re trying to lose weight or have allergies. The ability to shape that first screen, perhaps even according to the consumer’s needs and preferences, can help shape healthier habits.

Addressing food deserts: Online grocery shopping can be an option for people in rural and urban food deserts, as well as for people with limited mobility, due to disability or lack of transportation. The online space can provide access to healthy foods when the local environment doesn’t.

There are several potential downsides that the studies demonstrate:

Fresh aversion: People reported that they’re less likely to buy perishables and fresh produce online.

Inequality in access persists: Areas not well served by brick-and-mortar grocery stores also see shipping and delivery that’s more limited and more expensive. People with low income also may not have Internet access, credit cards, and online grocery shopping doesn’t currently accept SNAP and WIC benefits (nutrition assistance programs).

Bottom line

Whether we like it or not, online grocery shopping, the final online frontier, is being conquered. It can never replace touching the vegetables, finding inspiration in produce section and meeting farmers at the farmers’ market. And we didn’t even get into the environmental pros and cons of deliveries – these are complex and the net effect will depend on efficiencies and optimization.

On the other hand, as this study shows, online grocery shopping makes sticking to your list easier, it can advance better food choices if done right, it can save time, maybe save money, and it can provide access to healthy ingredients when access is limited.

Are you a fan?

Dr. Ayala