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Food swamps could be more harmful than food deserts

Overabundance of subpar food choices raises obesity rates more than food deserts, according to a new study.

Jenna Blumenfeld

January 5, 2018

4 Min Read
Food swamps could be more harmful than food deserts

Have you visited Burger King lately? If not, you’re missing out on a new menu item: Flamin’ Hot Mac N’ Cheetos.

Described by Burger King as a “unique portable snack of creamy mac n’ cheese coated and dusted with the flavor of Cheetos crunchy Flamin’ Hot cheese snacks,” this chimeric monstrosity is a 390-calorie salt bomb that contains 1,170 milligrams of sodium and 22 grams of fat. Think mozzarella sticks, but swap the ‘rella with macaroni and cheese and replace the fried breading with pulverized Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

The surprise here isn’t that this product exists. Food mashups—particularly ones involving beloved junk food—are a money-making tool for fast food chains. (Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos, for example, earned the company $1 billion in a year, making it one of the most successful fast food products in history.) Nor is it particularly shocking that it’s not very healthy for you. What’s notable is that it’s available in Boulder, Colorado, a city with a much-deserved reputation as a hippie haven. A place where the kombucha freely flows and where paleo bone broth is never far from reach.

According to a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, nutritionally empty foods such as Burger King’s new Flamin’ Hot offering could contribute to rising obesity rates if Boulder didn’t have so many other better-for-you options available. Researchers from the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity examined how food swamps—“areas with a high-density of establishments selling high-calorie fast food and junk food, relative to healthier food options”—may be to blame for soaring obesity rates in this country. 

Food swamps differ from food deserts in that they aren’t necessarily void of grocery stores and supermarkets. Getting food isn’t the problem. Getting healthy food is.

After merging socioeconomic, obesity and food outlet data with the USDA’s Food Environmental Atlas and a commercial street reference dataset, the study authors found that “the presence of a food swamp is a stronger predictor of obesity rates than the absence of full-service grocery stores.” Even after controlling for food deserts, food swamps are positively correlated with adult obesity rates.

This isn’t the only available science that examines the role food swamps have on public health. A separate study published last year in Public Health Nutrition found that Baltimore-based 6th grade and 7th grade girls living in food swamps (which the authors described as being within a quarter mile of more than four corner stores) consumed more snacks and desserts than same-age girls living in food deserts alone.

How to drain the food swamp

There are a few important takeaways here.

First, it matters what kind of food is available. While fast food chains have made a half-hearted effort to offer healthier options in their stores over the past decade, the continued existence of items like Flamin’ Hot Mac N’ Cheetos and Bacon McDoubles and Baconators and 1/2-lb. Guacamole Bacon Thickburgers supersedes the under-marketed healthy foods that reside on the outskirts of the menu. Does anyone actually have the frontal cortex willpower to choose stale apple slices over salty, fatty French fries—their primal scent wafting out the drive-thru window to spark the reptilian part of the brain that craves salt, fat and sugar? I certainly don't.

Also important: The concentration of fast food establishments matters. At the conclusion of the UConn study, the authors call for greater zoning regulations that restrict the number of unhealthy food chains in a certain area. Outnumbering fast food chains with better-for-you options works. I don’t have to order from Burger King to eat lunch in Boulder. For just a few more dollars I can snag a sandwich, salad or soup from health-oriented, fast-casual establishments like Chipotle or The Protein Bar or Native Foods Cafe.

Such abundance is an anomaly in many areas of the United States. But there’s evidence that food swamps may start to evaporate in the coming years. CoreLife Eatery, for example, a chain that serves holier items like Sriracha Ginger Roasted Tofu Green Bowls, recently announced a plan to open 40 more locations in 2018 alone, which would raise their total number of stores across the country to 60 locations.

Natural products retailers continue to expand convenience grab-and-go sections, often dishing up items like fresh-made vegetarian wraps, coconut-milk curry and salad bars. They’re a significant part of the solution.

Thanks in part to programs such as the Pennsylvania Healthy Corner Store Initiative, convenience stores and gas stations have for years helpfully proffered apples and bananas at checkout to offer healthy alternatives to customers.

However, a fruit basket doesn't replace the vast assortment of sparkly conventional candy, gum, snacks and sugary beverages available at such stores—it's still a food swamp. The fix? Drain the swamp by making nutritious food even more convenient and more available than junk food. The natural products industry can help make this a reality.

About the Author(s)

Jenna Blumenfeld


Jenna Blumenfeld lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she reports on the natural products industry, sustainable agriculture, and all things plant based. 

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