Jan. 9 (UPI) -- How people choose food in a store may depend on what other food is next to it, a new study suggests.
When people in the study got the option to choose a tasty but unhealthy option, like a slice of pizza, that sat next to a healthy option, such as broccoli, they nearly always chose the unhealthy food.
However, when a healthy option like salmon sat next to unhealthy Oreos, about half of the participants chose the fish, according to the research, published Wednesday in the journal Psychological Science.
"If you see one healthy food and one unhealthy food, most people will choose the indulgent food," Scott Huettel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke and author on the study, said in a news release. "But if you add more unhealthy foods, it seems, suddenly the healthy food stands out."
The idea is that the colorful salmon stood out visually and competed for the attention of the person choosing the food.
When a community has a scarcity of healthy food options it's known as a food desert. In the past, some stores in these areas have introduced fruits and vegetables but people still choose unhealthy options. The researchers think this may have happened because the healthy and unhealthy options were separated.
"When people see a wall of cabbage and broccoli, that may not encourage people to choose it," Sullivan said.
The researchers think mixing the healthy options in the same display area as the junk food could nudge people to make better eating choices.
"Right now, food items are very segregated: here's the produce, here are the candy bars," she said. "Yet maybe if we put something healthy in the middle of the snack food section, perhaps that might encourage people to choose it."
"Individuals struggle with making healthy choices," Sullivan said. "if we can change the set of foods people are choosing between, people may make healthier choices. And that could have a profound impact."