Published March 24, 2023
University at Buffalo researchers who study what makes people buy and eat healthy foods are teaming up with Instacart, the leading grocery technology company in North America, to test nutrition intervention programs for families at higher risk for obesity. Their upcoming project aims to enroll 70 families, about half of whom will be low-income.
The project was referenced today in an announcement by the White House about its continuing national efforts to combat nutrition insecurity and diet-related disease.
Instacart is providing a financial contribution and collaborating with UB to conduct the research, which will leverage Instacart Health tools. The grant complements an initial investment from the UB Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development. UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute provided seed funding for pilot research that set the stage for the new project.
Based in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, the UB-Instacart partnership builds on decades of pioneering work in behavioral medicine and nutrition in the Division of Behavioral Medicine in the UB Department of Pediatrics.
“The goal of our project with Instacart is to make it easier for parents to make healthy choices while grocery shopping,” said Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, PhD, principal investigator, associate professor of pediatrics and director of the Child Health & Behavior Lab in the Jacobs School.
“At Instacart, we believe every family should have access to the nutritious food they need to live healthy lives,” said Sarah Fleisch Fink, Instacart’s director of policy research and development. “We’re excited to partner with the University at Buffalo on this research to better understand how individuals make grocery shopping decisions and explore new ways to make healthy shopping easier for families on a budget.”
The project extends recent research Anzman-Frasca has led that has demonstrated how “optimal defaults,” such as pre-filled shopping carts, can help lead people to make healthier dietary choices.
In a paper published last November in Obesity, Anzman-Frasca and co-authors tested how providing healthy recipes and online shopping carts preloaded with ingredients for those recipes would impact the food choices of adults who have Type 2 diabetes or are at increased risk for it.
That was the first randomized trial of a defaults-based grocery shopping intervention designed for adults at risk for or diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
In the diabetes study, the group of people who was provided with pre-filled, “default” shopping carts had the option of removing and replacing the healthy items placed in their carts. Nevertheless, grocery purchases were higher in nutritional quality in that group compared to online and in-person shoppers who didn’t have their carts pre-filled.
The concept of optimal defaults comes out of the field of behavioral economics, and although it is a fairly new concept in grocery shopping research, Anzman-Frasca said there is evidence from many other areas that modifying the default or automatic choice has strong effects on decision-making.
“We make countless decisions in a given day,” she said. “Research evidence supports the idea that using ‘defaults’ like these pre-filled online shopping carts reduces the burden of constant decision-making. Our pilot research suggests that this approach makes it more likely that the recommended healthy foods make it from the online shopping cart to home.”
In the UB-Instacart study, the researchers will again use the concept of “default” shopping carts pre-filled with ingredients that correspond to healthy recipes that will be provided, this time focusing on families with young children.
The project will begin recruiting participant families in Western New York this summer.
“Of course, families ultimately can choose if they want to prepare the provided recipes or modify the pre-filled carts, but based on the literature in this area, including our prior work, we hypothesize that they are more likely to try the provided recipes if we provide the tools to make it easier to select and prepare these meals,” said Anzman-Frasca.
“By pre-filling their carts with the recommended ingredients, we are making these the easy, default choice,” she said.
The intervention program will use Instacart Health technology for the online shopping and will incorporate recipes created by registered dietitians to promote health.
“We are providing healthy recipes that meet dietary recommendations,” added Mackenzie Ferrante, PhD, a registered dietitian and postdoctoral associate in Anzman-Frasca’s lab, who is leading the refinement of study recipes and preparation of recipe bundles families will receive each week. “Importantly, we will also ask families about their current eating habits, including any dietary restrictions and their favorite foods, and provide families with recipes that fit with their food preferences.”
Specific outcomes the researchers will be looking at include the nutritional quality of grocery purchases, the home food environment, and parent and child dietary intake among families receiving the “default” program compared to those receiving the healthy recipes but no pre-filled grocery carts.
Collaborators involved with this work include Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor and chief, Division of Behavioral Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics; and Lucia Leone, PhD, associate professor, Department of Community Health and Health Behavior in the School of Public Health and Health Professions. The Independent Health Foundation is also a partner on this project.